Low, Moderate Psychological Distress Increases Risk of COPD, Other Diseases, Study Shows

Alice Melão, MSc avatar

by Alice Melão, MSc |

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Psychological distress, even at low or moderate levels, increases the risk of arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), researchers have found.

This finding was reported in the study, “The effects of psychological distress and its interaction with socioeconomic position on risk of developing four chronic diseases,” published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

It has been suggested that clinical depression, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms are important contributors in the development of a variety of chronic diseases. However, it remains unclear to what extent less severe psychological issues may have an impact.

To shed light on this, a research team led by Catharine Gale, PhD, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and at MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton, reviewed the clinical records of 16,485 individuals over a three-year period.

They used data from the U.K. Household Longitudinal Study between 2009 and 2012, which collects information on health, psychological factors, and socioeconomic status.

“Although the relationship between significant distress and the onset of arthritis, COPD, cardiovascular disease and diabetes is well established, there is a significant gap in knowledge regarding the link between lower and moderate levels of distress and the development of chronic conditions,” Gale said in a press release.

The study showed that, compared with people who had no symptoms of psychological distress, those with low levels of distress had a 57% increased chance of having arthritis and those with moderate distress levels had a 72% increased chance. A similar pattern was reported regarding cardiovascular diseases, with low distress levels increasing the risk by 46% and moderate levels by 77%.

When the researchers evaluated the risk of COPD development, they found that low levels of distress increased the risk of having the disease by 44%. Moderate and high levels of mental distress were associated with a 125% and 148% higher risk of COPD.

They did not find an association between psychological distress and the risk of diabetes.

“These findings have considerable clinical and public health implications,” Gale said. “Screening for distress may help to identify those at risk of developing arthritis, COPD, and cardiovascular disease, while interventions to improve distress may help to prevent and limit progression of disease, even for people with low levels of distress.”

Further investigations are warranted to determine if lifestyle changes can improve mental distress and the associated risk of chronic diseases.

“This fascinating data has the potential to have a major impact on the development and management of chronic diseases, which could not only save and change lives but also significantly reduce costs across the health service,” said Cyrus Cooper, consultant rheumatologist and director of the Medical Research Council’s Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit.