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Mental Health Disorders May Shorten Life Span

People with psychiatric conditions live an average of 10 fewer years

People with depression, chronic anxiety issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia tend to die younger than those without psychiatric disorders, according to new research.

In fact, the researchers estimated that mental health disorders typically rob people of nearly a decade of life. The findings, published online in JAMA Psychiatry, are from an analysis of more than 200 studies across several decades. Schizophrenia and other types of psychoses—among the most severe forms of mental illness—carried the highest mortality rates, but disorders such as anxiety and major depression are more common. They all appear to shorten people’s lives by nearly a decade, adding up to 8 million deaths across the globe each year.

Overall, the analysis found, people with mental health conditions had a risk of death from unnatural causes, including suicide and accidents, that was seven times higher than people without mental health issues. Their chances of dying from physical health conditions were also higher, by an average of 80 percent, according to the researchers.

“People with mental health disorders have a high prevalence of chronic medical conditions,” said study leader Elizabeth Walker, a researcher at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta. Worse, they often have difficulty managing those conditions for a variety of reasons, including poor diet, lack of exercise, trouble following medication regimens and problems with access to health care.

Experts have long known that physical health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes are particularly common among people with psychiatric disorders. Both diseases raise the risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. But being aware of the problem hasn’t improved the situation. Walker and her team found the mortality gap between people with and without mental disorders is growing, becoming wider in studies done since the 1990s, compared to those done before 1970.

Part of that could be a result of healthier lifestyle habits in the general population. There’s been an overall drop in smoking rates among the general population, for instance, but that decline is less prevalent among people with mental health conditions.

Whatever the reasons, Walker said it appears people with psychiatric conditions are not seeing the same physical health improvements as the rest of the population. “There’s no simple solution to this,” she said. “It’s going to take multiple approaches.”

One thing that is key is to make sure people with psychiatric disorders have access to the types of health care they need. Walker stresses that Americans with mental health issues also have higher rates of poverty and unemployment, and may lack the support that a network of family and friends can provide. There’s also a need for more integrated care—better coordination among different professionals responsible for a patient’s mental and physical health. And experts suggest that families of people with mental health conditions should be cognizant of the potential physical toll a loved one’s illness can take and learn how they can better support a healthy lifestyle.

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