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Youth with Mental Health Issues More Likely to Have Physical Issues as Adults

February 24, 2021

A pair of recent studies resulting from Duke University researchers’ work in New Zealand have found that children with mental health issues are more likely to experience poorer physical health in adulthood, suggesting that improved mental healthcare for youth can potentially prevent diseases later in life and thereby lower overall societal healthcare costs.

One study, published last week by JAMA Psychiatry, was based on health and wellbeing monitoring of New Zealanders born in 1972-73, from birth to past the age of 45. Individuals with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, substance use disorder and/or schizophrenia, were found to age at a faster pace and present declines in sensory, motor and cognitive functions.

A second study, published on JAMA Network Open in January, was based on a review of medical records of 2.3 million New Zealanders, ages 10-60, between 1988 and 2018. Similarly, researchers in this study found that patients with early-life mental health issues had more hospitalizations for physical issues, more time spent in hospitals and higher total healthcare costs as adults.

“Investing more resources in treating young people’s mental health problems is a window of opportunity to prevent future physical diseases in older adults,” Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and an author on both studies, said in a news release. “Young people with mental health problems go on to become very costly medical patients in later life.” 

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