The evidence is robust and disheartening: As if the personal suffering and societal stigma of mental illness are not bad enough, psychiatric patients also have a shorter lifespan.1 In the past, most studies have focused on early mortality and loss of potential life-years in schizophrenia,2 but many subsequent reports indicate that premature death occurs in all major psychiatric disorders.
Here is a summary of the sobering facts:
- Schizophrenia. In a study of 30,210 patients with schizophrenia, compared with >5 million individuals in the general population in Denmark (where they have an excellent registry), mortality was 16-fold higher among patients with schizophrenia if they had a single somatic illness.3 The illnesses were mostly respiratory, gastrointestinal, or cardiovascular).3 The loss of potential years of life was staggeringly high: 18.7 years for men, 16.3 years for women.4 A study conducted in 8 US states reported a loss of 2 to 3 decades of life across each of these states.5 The causes of death in patients with schizophrenia were mainly heart disease, cancer, stroke, and pulmonary diseases. A national database in Sweden found that unmedicated patients with schizophrenia had a significantly higher death rate than those receiving antipsychotics.6,7 Similar findings were reported by researchers in Finland.8 The Swedish study by Tiihonen et al6 also found that mortality was highest in patients receiving benzodiazepines along with antipsychotics, but there was no increased mortality among patients with schizophrenia receiving antidepressants.
- Bipolar disorder. A shorter life expectancy has also been reported in bipolar disorder,9 with a loss of 13.6 years for men and 12.1 years for women. Early death was caused by physical illness (even when suicide deaths were excluded), especially cardiovascular disease.10
- Major depressive disorder (MDD). A reduction of life expectancy in persons with MDD (unipolar depression) has been reported, with a loss of 14 years in men and 10 years in women.11 Although suicide contributed to the shorter lifespan, death due to accidents was 500% higher among persons with unipolar depression; the largest causes of death were physical illnesses. Further, Zubenko et al12 reported alarming findings about excess mortality among first- and second-degree relatives of persons with early-onset depression (some of whom were bipolar). The relatives died an average of 8 years earlier than the local population, and 40% died before reaching age 65. Also, there was a 5-fold increase in infant mortality (in the first year of life) among the relatives. The most common causes of death in adult relatives were heart disease, cancer, and stroke. It is obvious that MDD has a significant negative impact on health and longevity in both patients and their relatives.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A 220% increase in mortality was reported in persons with ADHD at all ages.13 Accidents were the most common cause of death. The mortality rate ratio (MRR) was 1.86 for ADHD before age 6, 1.58 for ADHD between age 6 to 17, and 4.25 for those age ≥18. The rate of early mortality was higher in girls and women (MRR = 2.85) than boys and men (MRR = 1.27).
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A study from Denmark of 10,155 persons with OCD followed for 10 years reported a significantly higher risk of death from both natural (MRR = 1.68) and unnatural causes (MRR = 2.61), compared with the general population.14 Patients with OCD and comorbid depression, anxiety, or substance use had a further increase in mortality risk, but the mortality risk of individuals with OCD without psychiatric comorbidity was still 200% higher than that of the general population.
- Anxiety disorders. One study found no increase in mortality among patients who have generalized anxiety, unless it was associated with depression.15 Another study reported that the presence of anxiety reduced the risk of cardiovascular mortality in persons with depression.16 The absence of increased mortality in anxiety disorders was also confirmed in a meta-analysis of 36 studies.17 However, a study of postmenopausal women with panic attacks found a 3-fold increase in coronary artery disease and stroke in that cohort,18 which confirmed the findings of an older study19 that demonstrated a 2-fold increase of mortality among 155 men with panic disorder after a 12-year follow-up. Also, a 25-year follow-up study found that suicide accounted for 20% of deaths in the anxiety group compared with 16.2% in the depression group,20 showing a significant risk of suicide in panic disorder, even exceeding that of depression.
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD). In a 12-year follow-up study of 9,495 individuals with “disruptive behavioral disorders,” which included ODD and CD, the mortality rate was >400% higher in these patients compared with 1.92 million individuals in the general population (9.66 vs 2.22 per 10,000 person-years).21 Comorbid substance use disorder and ADHD further increased the mortality rate in this cohort.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies show that there is a significantly increased risk of early cardiovascular mortality in PTSD,22 and that the death rate may be associated with accelerated “DNA methylation age” that leads to a 13% increased risk for all-cause mortality.23
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD). A recent longitudinal study (24 years of follow-up with evaluation every 2 years) reported a significantly higher mortality in patients with BPD compared with those with other personality disorders. The age range when the study started was 18 to 35. The rate of suicide death was Palatino LT Std>400% higher in BPD (5.9% vs 1.4%). Also, non-suicidal death was 250% higher in BPD (14% vs 5.5%). The causes of non-suicidal death included cardiovascular disease, substance-related complications, cancer, and accidents.24
- Other personality disorders. Certain personality traits have been associated with shorter leukocyte telomeres, which signal early death. These traits include neuroticism, conscientiousness, harm avoidance, and reward dependence.25 Another study found shorter telomeres in persons with high neuroticism and low agreeableness26 regardless of age or sex. Short telomeres, which reflect accelerated cellular senescence and aging, have also been reported in several major psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, MDD, and anxiety).27-29 The cumulative evidence is unassailable; psychiatric brain disorders are not only associated with premature death due to high suicide rates, but also with multiple medical diseases that lead to early mortality and a shorter lifespan. The shortened telomeres reflect high oxidative stress and inflammation, and both those toxic processes are known to be associated with major psychiatric disorders. Compounding the dismal facts about early mortality due to mental illness are the additional grave medical consequences of alcohol and substance use, which are highly comorbid with most psychiatric disorders, further exacerbating the premature death rates among psychiatric patients.
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