Individuals with serious mental health conditions die 10 to 25 years earlier than those without—a very significant impact on longevity. In the U.S., about 1 in 10 people suffer from a major mental health condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression at any given point in time (that number grows significantly when considering other, similarly serious conditions such as anxiety/panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, stress, and other specific phobias). That means there is a high likelihood such a condition can affect any of us at some point in time, or that we know someone who is affected.
To date, treatment of such mental health conditions is typically limited to anti-depressant, or ‘mood-boosting,’ drugs (e.g., TCAs, SSRIs, SNRIs). And while the effectiveness of these drugs has been investigated for decades, the results are a mixed bag at best. In general, they are found to be only moderately effective (helping only about half of those that take them) and suffer from incredibly high rates of non-adherence to prescription (about half will stop prematurely or never start).
With such a large segment of our population at risk of significantly decreased longevity, we were pleased to learn about a new study that is changing the way we think about genetics and mental health. Conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression all arise from similar genes, but each disorder is markedly different from the other. For some time, scientists suspected that heritability (differences in how genes are expressed) was responsible for why these three conditions are so different (and thus hard to treat). Recently, researchers from the NIH and Georgetown University examined cadaver brains to pinpoint the root of the differences.
Specifically, they looked toward the RNA transcripts, or the way that our DNA (our genes) creates RNA, which are in essence codes for what proteins to make and how to make them. The study found that there were observable differences in the RNA transcripts of individuals who had schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, or no illness at all. In fact, these genetically similar disorders were found to have wildly different RNA transcripts. According to the authors, these differences in RNA transcripts are what account for the differences we see in how certain mental health conditions manifest, not heredity.
Why is this such a ground-breaking finding? Learning more about the root cause of how such conditions manifest themselves can accelerate the science around how they are diagnosed and ultimately treated. We find hope in this forefront of science around mental health and longevity, that in the near future a whole new world of treatment options may exist that more finely target the symptoms and root causes of individual conditions, to optimize longevity for all.