Can Your Mental Health Actually Age You Faster Than Smoking?

A beautiful, yet unnerving truth of life as a human is aging: we all progressively, inevitably change. For instance, as the years fly by you not only age chronologically — adding years to your life — you also develop and age biologically and psychologically (via Merck Manual). These changes in your body and mind can be a part of a normal aging process, such as a lesser ability to focus your vision on up close objects, graying hair, or even a slight loss of mental acuity. On the other hand, your habits and lifestyle choices can contribute to the aging process as well.

There's a contended idea in the history of human aging: that modern people have a longer lifespan today than in past eras, reports the British Broadcasting Company. It is more likely that the human lifespan has not dramatically extended, rather progress in medicine, diet, and overall lifestyle have enabled people to maximize their lifespan. A consequence of this knowledge is the identification of factors that can "accelerate" the normal aging process. For example, smoking and stress are tied to premature aging (per Cleveland Clinic). Now you can add mental health to that list of premature aging factors. Here's everything you need to know about which factor — smoking or mental health — ages you faster.

Smoking vs mental health: which ages you faster?

Mayo Clinic states that smoking can do a number on your skin, contributing to crow's feet, puffy bags under the eyes, and even thinning of the lips. Even worse, the longer you smoke, the more you increase your chances of premature aging. A 2007 study published in the journal Dermatological Science concluded that smoking tobacco can increase the production of a matrix protein degrading enzyme called matrix metalloproteinases (MMP), which contributes to the breakdown of collagen. Poor mental health earlier in life has also been linked to premature aging later in life (via National Institutes on Aging). There are several suspected reasons why poor mental health could lead to early aging, including a higher likelihood of a lack of exercise or an unhealthy diet (per CNN Health). Chronic stress is another one. Clearly, issues with mental health and smoking are not aging-friendly agents, but which one is worse?

According to Medical News Today a combination of mental health factors — like depression, loneliness, and poor sleep — among other psychological factors can age you faster than smoking alone. Notably, the 2022 study referenced in the journal Aging used a "deep learning aging clock" that analyzed blood samples to determine that the combined psychological factors added 1.65 biological years to a person's age, while smoking added 1.25. This means that while smoking and poor mental health age you, poor mental health can do so at a faster rate.