Study shows addressing lifestyle increases life expectancy in mental illness patients

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Targeting unhealthy lifestyle factors may provide the greatest benefit  in increasing life expectancy among those with severe mental illness, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One.

Interventions that aim to stop smoking among people with schizophrenia and approaches to lessen sedentary behavior among people with bipolar disorders appear to be the most promising ways to increase life expectancy, showing an increase of two years five months and an increase of one year three months, respectively, the study said.

Currently, people with severe mental illness tend to live on average 12 to 15 years less than those in the general population. Additionally, 80 percent of deaths of those with severe mental illness are caused by common diseases such as heart disease, respiratory illnesses, diabetes, cancer, and digestive disorders. All of these diseases can be partly attributed to unhealthy lifestyle factors, social isolation and deprivation, and inadequate use of healthcare services.

To inform public health policy, the study, led by researchers from King’s College London in England, aimed to estimate how much tackling these changeable factors in the lives of people with severe mental illness could translate into a gain in life expectancy.

Using data from systemic reviews, the researchers estimated the level of association between a range of different risk factors and the total number of deaths amongst those with severe mental illness. The factors were categorized into three groups, behavioral risk factors, such as smoking and physical inactivity, healthcare risk factors, such as uptake of treatment and access to healthcare resources, and social risk factors, such as stigma and exclusion.

By considering the effectiveness of interventions aimed at changing these factors the researchers then calculated the gains in life expectancy that could occur. Examples of interventions to address the risk factors were smoking cessation initiatives, improving access to anti-psychotic medication, and educative approaches to reduce stigma.

The analysis estimated that approaches that tackled all these factors could produce a potential gain in life expectancy from birth of four years for those with bipolar disorders and seven years for those with schizophrenia. Gains in life expectancies were also estimated later in life and at 65 years the projected gain was three years for bipolar disorder and four years for schizophrenia, the researchers said.

“The analysis indicates that, when considering different approaches to help those with severe mental illness, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and there is more benefit if a multi-faceted approach is taken which addresses behavioral, healthcare, and social issues simultaneously,” said Alex Dregan, PhD, lead author of the study and senior lecturer, in a statement. “Greater investments in developing more effective interventions aimed at reducing unhealthy behaviors and treating the underlying symptoms would contribute to reducing the gap in premature mortality between those with severe mental illness and the general population.”