Treat the mind, treat the body: Addressing a fundamental gap in acute disease management

LongeVC’s Sergey Jakimov explains why mental health care is a crucial aspect of lengthened lifespans.

The longevity sector proudly promises to add more healthy years to our lives. Startups, foundations, and investors (like myself) rally around cutting-edge science and biotech breakthroughs, eager to deliver life-changing treatments. Speed and accessibility are priorities, but we must also consider longevity’s broader impact on healthcare.

Longer and healthier lives demand more supportive care across lengthened lifespans. The healthcare sector faces more “cured” patients, coupled with more pressure on limited resources. Mental health care is a crucial but mostly overlooked aspect of the longevity transformation.

For example, many healthcare institutions ignore mental health in patients recovering from acute manifestations of age-related diseases and near-death ICU experiences. Modern treatment protocols often prioritize fixing the body and completely neglect “fixing” the mind. A BMJ study reports critical illness survivors experience increased rates of self-harm, suicide, and severe PTSD [1]. In other words, we typically fail to realize that physical remission (sometimes “healing” is too strong a word) does not include mental rehabilitation or a guaranteed return to pre-diagnosis life satisfaction. Unfortunately, the latter might dramatically decrease.

Treat the mind, treat the body: Addressing a fundamental gap in acute disease management
Photograph: Sergey Jakimov

I am approaching this topic wearing two hats. The first is a professional working on the innovation side of healthcare, witnessing first-hand how new treatments, protocols, and methods reach the market. The second is a patient who embarked on a highly unpleasant journey of trying to recover from and learn to live with a rare disease.

Speaking from experience: the patient’s journey does not end with remission. Longevity treatments will improve patient outcomes, but evidence of disease is not the only essential measure of health. We need to shift our mindset and stop viewing age-related diseases as something that can be fixed with physical medicine. Next-generation mental health approaches and more holistic treatment protocols will benefit us all.

Which patients are we talking about?

While biological aging impacts everyone, let’s divide patient groups into three categories.

  1. Patients recovering from a near-death/ICU experience, especially those coming off ventilators. These are not the article’s primary focus; however, they still represent a relevant population with serious mental health concerns.
  2. Patients fighting to recover from age-related diseases. This group might include those dealing with chemotherapy side effects, fighting through complex treatments with no guaranteed outcome (such as bone marrow transplants, for example), or adjusting to neurodegenerative disorders.
  3. Patients living or learning to live with a condition that doesn’t immediately threaten their lives but changes how they perceive or interact with the surrounding world. A good example is young multiple sclerosis (MS) patients, where the average age of onset is 28–30 years old. What is crucial to understand is these patients are living with a condition that is often semi-dormant, yet can kill or degrade them extremely quickly if flares up. Usually, there is no way to tell when and if it will happen, leaving patients in a semi-healthy state, often with complete uncertainty and a very short planning horizon. Having gone through rehab myself, I guarantee that the inability to plan even one month ahead due to being unsure of your potential physical abilities is daunting.

Why does mental health matter in these conditions?

Mental health and physical health go hand-in-hand. You cannot separate the mind from the body. To encourage healing, you must address both – here’s why.

  1. A positive mental state is essential for physical recovery. Patients experiencing an active form of their age-related disease, a flare-up of an old one, or an intense course of treatment are usually morally devastated. They may try to keep their spirits high, but doing so is easier said than done. However, positive thinking improves recovery outcomes and life satisfaction for conditions like TBI, stroke, and brain cancer [2].
  2. The “barrier of understanding” directly impacts patient experiences. Patients often fight their battles alone – not because they don’t have access to other people but because others lack compassionate dialogue. A person undergoing chemo or a neurodegenerative flare-up is generally incapable of talking about their physical and emotional struggles with a healthy human, even a friend or family member. Honestly conveying their experience might scare healthy people, and empathy is farfetched when experiences can be impossible to comprehend. Even doctors can only pragmatically understand the experiences of the patients. Their reactions are textbook-style, as they lack first-hand experience. Moreover, massive patient loads and long working hours make it difficult for doctors to form a personal connection with every patient.

    Patient alliances and support groups are a step in the right direction here. However, patients deserve new channels to open up and talk about their experiences. These can include mindfulness or meditation therapy, or even guided psilocybin experiences. We need to complete the equation of patients not having a sympathetic listening ear and offer receptive alternatives.
  3. Drug-induced mental struggles lead to particularly challenging cases. Some medications, such as chemo, corticosteroids, and immunotherapies, alter the hormonal balance and induce suicidal thoughts/feelings of doom as a side effect. The patients are forced to continue the treatment yet acquire a grim future outlook without any feasible way of overcoming it. Here’s my example: it took me one year to recover physically and mentally from a nine-month-long corticosteroid treatment.
  4. Ignorance plagues the public, and societal stigma around illness persists. The average individual tends to distance themselves from healthcare. Because they represent “what we do not want to happen to ourselves,” some people would rather ignore sick people than help them. It’s a dangerous mindset.

Potential solutions

While the societal perception of illness has deep roots, the longevity sector should strive to build something better. If we’re transforming medical treatments, mental health care deserves a spot in this transformation. Here are three areas we can start.

  1. Researchers should explore combination therapies for maximum patient benefit. Traditional “emotionally-heavy” treatments should come with mental well-being stimulants. There’s plenty of innovation here, with psilocybin and CBD options entering clinics in some jurisdictions and on the horizon for others. In the meantime, counseling sessions should be mandatory in any protocol. While in a neuro unit, I was not visited or offered any mental help whatsoever. Current protocols simply do not account for it.
  2. Scientists should design clinical trials measuring drug efficacy when combined with mental health-enhancing practices/substances. Peer-reviewed research studies remain the healthcare gold standard. Amid overworked and underfunded systems, more evidence from these trials will indicate how such combinations lead to better clinical outcomes. This evidence is the strongest path toward implementation.
  3. Revamp the patient experience. Institutional leadership should take a closer look at patient group funding and what it offers. Resources should include guidelines for patients to reach out for help and better ways to explain patient struggles without alienating relationships. Most physicians would benefit from empathy workshops as well.

Supporting longer and healthier lives is a noble goal, and we must pursue a holistic understanding of “healthier” to encourage a positive future of longevity. As more treatments reach the market, more patients will enter remission from previously fatal diseases. These patients, and the millions of others learning to live with chronic illnesses, deserve the mental support needed to thrive. While navigating my recovery journey was difficult, I hope my experiences inspire others in the field to take action.