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How Does Mental Health Affect Longevity?

We speak to Salma El-Shurafa, executive coach and leadership facilitator, about the impact of mental health on how long—and well—we live.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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A positive support system can lead to lower levels of stress, increased immune function, and healthier lifestyle behaviors, all of which can contribute to increased longevity. 

Salma El-Shurafa who is doing her Masters degree in psychology and neuroscience of mental health at Kings College London, tells us that gender, socioeconomics, and genetics can affect mental health and how they can contribute to longevity.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows.  

Inc. Arabia: What is mental health? How is it measured?

Salma El-Shurafa: Mental health refers to a person's emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and behave in daily life. It also influences how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

It can be measured with tools such as self-report questionnaires, clinical interviews designed to diagnose mental health conditions using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), psychological testing, biological measures like hormone levels or brain imaging, and observational methods by healthcare providers, all of which are utilized to assess various aspects of mental health.

IA: What is the difference between mental and emotional health and how are they fulfilled differently? How can emotional needs be met, especially as people get older?

SS: Mental health generally refers to a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and can make a contribution to their community.

Emotional health refers to the aspect of mental health that involves emotional regulation and awareness. It emphasizes awareness and acceptance of one's emotions, the ability to manage feelings effectively, and navigating a healthy range of emotions.

Meeting the emotional needs of older adults is achieved through strong social connections, engaging activities, physical health maintenance, and avenues for emotional expression and support 

IA: How does mental health affect longevity and healthspan or quality of life? How so? What risk factors contribute to mental illness?

SS: Mental health significantly impacts longevity and quality of life by influencing stress levels, physical health, and behavioral factors. Poor mental health can reduce life expectancy and degrade life quality through an increased risk of chronic diseases and impaired social and cognitive functioning. Key risk factors include genetic predispositions, biochemical imbalances, traumatic life experiences, chronic stress, substance abuse, and social isolation.

IA: What role does genetics play in determining mental illness? Are there any diagnostic tests to understand this?

SS: Genetics play a crucial role in the risk of developing mental illnesses, with conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder showing high heritability. However, mental illnesses are typically influenced by multiple genes and by environmental factors like stress,  trauma, and lifestyle. This complicates direct genetic prediction and diagnosis.

IA: What is the impact of age-related chronic disease on different generations? Who does caregiving affect? How does it affect them and their healthspan?

SS: Adult children often bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, juggling their work and personal lives, which can lead to physical, emotional, and financial stress, affecting their careers, financial stability, and personal relationships. Grandchildren and younger family members can also feel the impact, either by witnessing the stress or participating in caregiving.

The physical and emotional toll can reduce the caregiver’s healthspan, as chronic stress and physical demands compromise their health. Managing these dynamics involves not only medical care for those with chronic conditions but also support for caregivers, including respite care, counseling, and community support programs to help alleviate the burden.

IA: What role do epigenetics and inter-generational trauma play in fostering mental illness? What research is being done in the longevity industry to reverse this effect?

SS: Epigenetics and intergenerational trauma significantly impact mental health across generations. Epigenetic changes, influenced by factors like stress and trauma, can alter gene expression and increase susceptibility to mental disorders. Intergenerational trauma involves the transmission of trauma effects from one generation to the next, often leading to higher rates of mental health issues.

The longevity industry is addressing these issues through epigenetic therapies that modify gene expression, lifestyle interventions to adjust epigenetic markers, and psychotherapy to heal trauma effects.

IA: A lot of longevity and healthspan science focuses on preventive measures. What preventive measures can people take to fortify their mental health, especially as they get older?

SS: Engage in regular physical activity to boost mood and cognitive function, eat a balanced diet rich in nutrients that support brain health, maintain strong social connections to combat loneliness, and pursue mentally stimulating activities to keep the mind sharp. Additionally, ensuring adequate sleep, managing stress through techniques like meditation or yoga, undergoing regular health screenings, and moderating alcohol intake are crucial. Incorporating psychotherapy or counseling can also help address early signs of mental health issues, promoting a longer, healthier life.

IA: What is the difference between preventive and proactive mental wellness?

SS: Preventive mental wellness focuses on strategies to prevent the onset of mental health issues by reducing risk factors and enhancing protective measures, such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle and undergoing regular screenings. In contrast, proactive mental wellness involves daily, active management of one’s mental health through practices like meditation, resilience building, and continuous personal development. While preventive measures aim to avert mental health disorders before they start, proactive wellness is about improving ongoing mental health and addressing challenges as they arise.

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