People who suffer depression and anxiety have a 20 percent higher risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a new study.
And it doesn't have to be extreme levels of psychological distress — even low levels appear to raise the risk of heart disease and cancer, as well as speeding up ageing, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal online.
This is a significant health issue for Australia, with Mindframe estimating 10 percent of Australians are affected by anxiety disorders at some point in their life and 20 percent are affected by depression.
The researchers from University College London and the University of Edinburgh analysed data from 68,000 adults over the age of 35 who took part in an English Health Survey between 1994 and 2004.
They compared people's responses to causes of death and found the higher the psychological distress, the higher the person's risk of death.
"We found that psychological distress was a risk factor for death from all causes, cardiovascular disease and external causes," lead author Dr Tom Russ said in a media release.
"These associations also remained after taking into account other factors such as weight, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption and diabetes," co-author Dr David Batty said.
"Therefore this increased mortality is not simply the result of people with higher levels of psychological distress smoking or drinking more or taking less exercise."
The next step is studies that investigate whether reducing psychological distress boosts people's mortality.
"The fact that an increased risk of mortality was evident, even at low levels of psychological distress, should prompt research into whether treatment of these very common, minor symptoms can modify this increased risk of death," Dr Russ said.
Professor Michael Berk, chair in psychiatry at Deakin University, told ninemsn this study brought together lots of existing studies to create a comprehensive conclusion.
"There have been a number of studies that have shown that people with depression have an increased risk of a host of medical disorders and a shortened lifespan," he said.
"The article confirms what individual studies have shown — that people with depression do indeed have a shortened lifespan."
Professor Berk said there are a number of reasons for this.
"People with depression have an increased risk of developing other illnesses, particularly cardiovascular disease," he said.
"In depression there is inflammation and oxidative stress and we know that these are pathways to wear and tear in the body. People with depression have shortened telomeres –– the end caps on chromosomes that determine how many times a cell can reproduce –– and when you run out of telomeres, that's the end of the game."
Professor Berk said depression needs to be taken seriously.
"The bottom line finding of this is that one can't dismiss depression as a trivial illness that is all in the mind –– it's an illness that has effects on the whole body," he said.
"And you don't have to have severe depression for it to shorten your lifespan. Even mild depression is capable of doing so."