Mentally ill have reduced life expectancy, study finds

By Dominic Hughes
Health correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Mental illness
Image caption,
Researchers believe factors like social disadvantage and long-term drug use could be to blame

People suffering from serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can have a life expectancy 10 to 15 years lower than the UK average.

Researchers tracked the lives of more than 30,000 patients through the use of electronic medical records.

They found that many were dying early from heart attack, stroke and cancer rather than suicide or violence.

Mental health groups say vulnerable people need to be offered better care to prevent premature deaths.

The research was carried out at the Biomedical Research Centre for mental health at the Maudsley Hospital in London and published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

The study examined life expectancy for people suffering from specific mental illnesses like schizophrenia, serious depression and bipolar disorder, or those being treated for substance misuse.

Life expectancy across all the illnesses studied was well below the UK average of 77.4 years for men and 81.6 years for women.

Those most affected were women with schizoaffective disorder - problems with mood or sometimes abnormal thoughts - whose average life expectancy was reduced by 17.5 years, and men with schizophrenia whose lives were shortened by about 14.6 years.

The researchers believe a combination of factors - higher-risk lifestyles, long-term anti-psychotic drug use and social disadvantage - could be to blame.

'Grim statistics'

Dr Rob Stewart, of the Biomedical Research Centre, said people with serious mental health conditions tended not to look after themselves as well.

"These results show the enormous impact mental health conditions can have on general health and survival," he said.

"The effects we see here are stronger than well-known risk factors like smoking, obesity or diabetes.

"We need to improve the general health of people suffering from mental disorders by making sure they have access to healthcare of the same standard, quality and range as other people, and by developing effective screening programmes."

Jane Harris, from the charity Rethink Mental Illness, said the physical health needs of people with mental illness had been ignored.

"These grim statistics tell a depressingly familiar story. It is completely unacceptable that people with a mental illness are effectively living in the 1930s in terms of life expectancy.

"Action must be taken; we cannot carry on tolerating the fact that people are dying from preventable illnesses, due to a health system which treats mental health patients as second class citizens."

'Symptoms overlooked'

The joint chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, Professor Bob Grove, said urgent action was needed to implement the government's mental health strategy objective of improving the physical health of all people with mental health problems, and to address "the stark inequality in health as part of the NHS reform process".

Sophie Corlett, of the mental health charity Mind, said: "Doctors need to be more proactive in helping patients make informed choices about long-term medications that can sometimes have negative side effects for their physical health.

"There is also a danger that preventable illnesses can be missed by doctors who sometimes overlook physical health complaints and focus their attention on the mental health problem.

"It's vital that people with mental health problems have access to routine physical health checks and that they are helped to make healthy lifestyle choices. We cannot allow this inequality to continue."

Care Services Minister Paul Burstow said: "Our strategy, 'No health without mental health', aims to improve the physical health of people with mental health problems, reduce premature deaths, and ensure evidence-based mental health therapies are available for all who need them."

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