Wow, what a headline! After reviewing 17 studies involving more than 331,000 patients, University of Washington (UW) researchers have linked bipolar disorder to a risk of early death from natural causes, such as medical illness. The risk of premature death is from 35 to 200 percent more than people without bipolar disorder, and is the same between men and women. The most common conditions leading to death were heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
Before this study, the higher rate of death linked to bipolar disorder was attributed to suicides and accidents. While patients who suffer from mental illnesses do have a higher chance of accidents and suicides, the new evidence points to medical illnesses as the primary cause of premature deaths.
According to the UW report published in the journal Psychiatric Services, there are many reasons behind the poor health among bipolar disorder sufferers. Reasons such as unhealthy diet, added stress, lack of exercise, substance abuse, and biases among health professionals towards people with mental illnesses.
In addition to those reasons, bipolar disorder can also stress the immune system and the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, a system which handles many processes in the body. Mental illnesses also trigger the flight-or-fight response to stress.
Even more troubling, psychiatric medications that help treat bipolar disorders tend to cause weight gain, leading to obesity and other complications.
But there are attempts to try to reduce the risk of death in people with mental illnesses, such as providing guidelines to mental health professionals to monitor their patients’ physical health. Psychiatrists are also encouraged to teach their patients about how to quit smoking, how to exercise, and about healthy diets.
This study is a step forward in preventing premature deaths, despite its gloomy nature.