Psychological distress refers to a variety of mental health symptoms ranging from mild anxiety to depression. While the dangers of high levels of distress are well established, researchers from the United Kingdom revealed even low or moderate levels may have an impact on the risk of chronic diseases.

The study titled "The effects of psychological distress and its interaction with socioeconomic position on risk of developing four chronic diseases" was published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research on April 13.

High levels of distress have been linked to inflammation and the onset of conditions like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease — specifically chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder (CPOD). 

But Catharine Gale, a professor from the University of Southampton in England, wanted to gain a better understanding of how low and moderate levels of distress may be linked to such conditions. Gale conducted the new study along with Kyle McLachlan from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Together, they examined 16,485 adults in the U.K. by using three years' worth of data collected from the Understanding Society study. Their analysis focused on four conditions (diabetes, arthritis, COPD, and cardiovascular disease) and their link to psychological distress at different levels.

"Our findings show that even low levels of distress, below the level usually considered clinically significant, appear to increase the risk of developing a chronic disease," Gale said, "so intervention to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression may help to prevent the onset of these illnesses for some people." 

Compared to those who did not report any symptoms of psychological distress, those who reported low distress levels were 57 percent more likely to develop arthritis. The likelihood was 72 percent higher in those with moderate levels and 110 percent higher in those with high levels.

Similar figures emerged when examining the risk of cardiovascular disease, while COPD only saw an increased risk in relation to moderate (125 percent) or high (148 percent) levels of distress. In the case of diabetes, no significant associations were found between risk and psychological distress.

The research team stated the findings support clinical screening for distress, which could potentially be a modifiable risk factor. Even at lower levels, this process could help identify people who could be at risk for arthritis, COPD, and cardiovascular disease. 

"This fascinating data has the potential to have a major impact on the development and management of chronic diseases, which could not only save and change lives but also significantly reduce costs across the health service," said Professor Cyrus Cooper, a consultant rheumatologist and director of the Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at Southampton.

Further research in the future may explore whether interventions for people with low levels of distress can significantly reduce the risk of chronic disease conditions.