Scientists have known for a while that mental disorders are often observed in conjunction with physical diseases. Previous studies have primarily focused on how the two are associated in adult populations. Researchers at the University of Basel and Ruhr-University Bochum studied young individuals and are beginning to link specific mental disorders to certain physical ailments in younger populations.
The study was led by Marion Tegethoff from the University of Basel. The data was published in PLOS ONE and analyzed teenagers aged 13 to 18. The study outlined patterns observed in young individuals suffering from mental illness. They collected data from 6,500 teenagers to identify the relationships between common physical and mental disorders.
The researchers observed that children and adolescents who had previously suffered from certain mental disorders also frequently had physical diseases. In fact, one out of every three teenagers suffered from both a mental disorder and a physical disease.
In particular, the researchers noted a strong correlation between the onset of chronic pain and frequent incidences of depression, anxiety and other behavioral disorders. In fact, over a quarter of the adolescents suffered from chronic pain such as back pain, headaches and neck pain, as well as at least one mental disorder.
Besides chronic pain, the authors identified other specific relationships between mental disorder and physical disease. Conditions like arthritis and diseases of the digestive system were found often to follow affective disorders like depression, while anxiety disorders were similarly linked to skin diseases.
Researchers also observed a reverse association. Individuals who had suffered from heart disease were more likely to acquire anxiety disorders and those with epileptic disorders often had subsequent eating disorders. The researchers were careful to take into account other factors such as age, gender and socioeconomic status when analyzing the data, and none of the other factors seemed to account for any of the correlations.
“For the first time, we have established that epilepsy is followed by an increased risk of eating disorders — a phenomenon, that had previously been described only in single case reports. This suggests that approaches to epilepsy treatment could also have potential in the context of eating disorders,” Marion Tegethoff, the lead author, said in a press release.
The results of the study have immense significance with regards to the treatment of both mental disorders and physical diseases. By identifying specific associations, the study has opened the door has been opened to the possibility of new treatments aimed at better targeting the origins of physical diseases and mental disorders.
“Future studies should identify risk factors as well as the biological and psychological mechanisms responsible for these associations, in order to develop interdisciplinary approaches,” Tegethoff said.
The ultimate goal for researchers working in this field would be to devise treatments that could target mental disorder and physical disease simultaneously to improve overall child health.