Why Is Life Expectancy Lower For People With Mental Illness?

By Kelly Burch 08/02/19

New research explores why people with mental illness have a lower life expectancy than those without it.

woman with mental illness
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People with mental illness often die decades sooner than members of the general population, not because of suicide but because of physical illnesses and inequities in access to care.

““The consequent poor physical health outcomes of people with mental illness have been alluded to as a human rights issue,” researchers for The Lancet Psychiatry wrote in a recent report. “The premature mortality of people with mental illness reflects a large number of health inequalities between people with and without mental illness throughout the life course.”

It has long been established that people with severe mental illness have life expectancies that are years shorter than people without severe mental illness. However, new research indicates that people with all types of mental illness have decreased life expectancy. 

“There is now evidence that individuals who have diagnoses across the entire spectrum of mental disorders have a substantially reduced life expectancy compared with the general population,” the authors wrote. More research needs to be done on how milder mental illnesses affect life expectancy, they write. 

Reduced life expectancy for people with mental illness is a global trend, study authors pointed out. 

Lifestyle Choices

There are a number of factors that affect the reduced life expectancy for people with mental illness. Suicide accounts for 17% of deaths among the population. In addition, physical disease, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, occur at higher rates in people with mental illness.

Compounding that, lifestyle choices like smoking, substance use and low exercise levels can lower the overall health of people with mental illness. Finally, many psychiatric medications have complex and potentially dangerous physical side effects. 

A multidisciplinary approach to health, incorporating physical and mental health care, could make a difference in improving life expectancy for people with mental illness. 

“Modifiable lifestyle factors, such as physical activity, diet, and smoking, are increasingly recognized as being fundamental to both physical and mental health,” the report authors wrote. 

Addressing systematic issues like poverty and access to care is also important for both physical and mental health. Often, a person’s physical and mental health troubles can compound each other.

“For instance, people with mental illness are more likely to be in poverty and to have cardiometabolic and infectious diseases, and conversely, chronic physical health conditions and social deprivation are key risk factors for mental illness,” the report authors wrote. 

There Is Hope

Although the research is grim, The Lancet report ends on a positive note. 

“Nonetheless, our Commission takes an optimistic approach, and describes how disparities could be reduced through evidence-based prescribing and better integration of physical and mental health care,” the report reads. “Overall, protecting the physical health of people with mental illness should be considered an international priority for reducing the personal, social, and economic burden of mental health conditions.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.