Swedish Study Re-Affirms Link Between Mental Illness, Shortened Lifespan

woman sitting down holding her head

In July 2013, the results of a massive 41-year Swedish study on epilepsy were published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. Among its more notable findings, this multi-generational research project uncovered a clear connection between mental illness in epileptic patients and premature death.

In order to gain insight into the survival chances of people with epilepsy, researchers from the University of Oxford and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute tracked the medical histories of almost 70,000 Swedish epileptics from 1969 through 2009, comparing their mortality rates with those of a control group of more than 600,000 age-matched members of the general population. During this time period, about 9 percent of the epileptic patients died prematurely (before their mid-50s), while only 1 percent of those in the control group died at relatively young ages.

The next step was to ascertain the causes of these early fatalities. When casualties directly related to the disease were factored out, the most common remaining cause of death was accident or suicide, which accounted for 16 percent of the total. Significantly, about three-fourths of those who lost their lives in this manner had been diagnosed with a mental disorder at some point in their lives, and since epileptic patients are four times more likely than members of the general public to suffer from psychiatric conditions, this statistic obviously represents a problem that must be taken seriously by medical professionals who specialize in treating epilepsy.

In addition to the mental illness-accidental death/suicide connection, the researchers also found high rates of substance abuse among epileptic patients with mental disorders. This adds some confirmation to the long-held suspicion that people suffering from mental illness often turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate, and naturally this behavior can lead to serious physical ailments that can potentially shorten lifespan.

The Larger View

While this Swedish study was obviously targeted at a relatively narrow segment of the population, it is not the first research project carried out that has found a negative correlation between lifespan and poor mental health.

Some of the specifics of this connection are somewhat surprising, however. Of course it is hardly surprising that suicide rates among the mentally ill are high, and substance abuse among this group may be difficult to treat because of the complications caused by the presence of mental disorders, making addiction even more deadly than it otherwise might be. But what several studies have revealed is that about 80 percent of mentally ill people who die at younger-than-expected ages actually fall victim to relatively common killers such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and severe respiratory conditions.

It is not entirely clear why the presence of mental illness would leave a person more vulnerable to diseases that are associated with poor health in general. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that the presence of mental health conditions might interfere with people’s ability to make smart, sensible and healthy lifestyle choices. Perhaps many people who suffer from mental illness are too preoccupied just trying to manage their conditions to focus on such essentials as exercise, good diet, preventive (physical) health care and hobbies that can bring relaxation and reduce everyday stress. Those who are diagnosed with mental disorders often find themselves overwhelmed by their situation, as they must seek treatment for these problems while still working, raising a family, and participating in various community activities, and they simply may not have enough time to care for their bodies as well as their minds.

Healing the Whole Person 

As evidence mounts that mental illness truly does compromise physical health and reduce lifespan, an adjustment is clearly called for in the medical profession’s approach to mental health therapy and intervention. Instead of being forced to depend on a reductionist approach that treats psychiatric conditions in isolation from other aspects of a person’s life, victims of mental illness should have ready access to general health care services, substance abuse treatment, wellness programs and specialized expert advice as needed, in addition to counseling and other forms of treatment directly related to whatever mental health condition might be present in a particular instance. Even if we accept the premise that other health troubles are often the consequences of an underlying mental disorder, people suffering under their yoke cannot afford to wait until after they have been “cured” to begin worrying about other aspects of their health.

Whether the mental health profession can re-orient itself in the coming years to embrace a more comprehensive treatment regime remains to be seen. If this is to happen, a brand new model of mental health treatment will need to be developed in order to guarantee that people struggling with mental disorders are not forced to concentrate on just one area of their lives to the exclusion of all the others.

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