Schizophrenia has been known to reduce life expectancies significantly, and a recent study explored the increasing mortality gap associated with the condition. Unfortunately, the study indicated that despite an increased awareness of the relationship between mental and physical health, the number of early schizophrenia-related deaths has risen over the past few decades.
Researchers culled data from 37 previous studies on schizophrenic mortality rates. They then calculated standard mortality ratios (SMR) by dividing the sum of observed deaths by the sum of expected deaths based on the general population’s demographics. With this information, they were able to look at the SMRs associated with gender, specific causes of death, and the economic development of the countries where the studies occurred.
The median SMR for all causes of death was 2.5, meaning that people with schizophrenia were 2.5 times more likely to die prematurely than those in the general population. Statistics for individual causes of death make this trend clearer: schizophrenic individuals were 12.8 times as likely to commit suicide, 4.29 times as likely to die of infectious disease, and 4.22 times as likely to die of diseases of the nervous system. Statistics did not vary by gender.
These numbers have increased over time, rising from 1.8 in the 1970s to 2.9 in the 1980s and 3.2 in the 1990s, and the many barriers to treatment for those with schizophrenia may explain why the mortality gap has continued to grow. Individuals with schizophrenia are often either unable to find available mental health services or unwilling to get help due to the social stigmas of mental illness. Researchers speculate that those diagnosed with schizophrenia are less likely to seek treatment, less likely to comply with said treatments, and more likely to engage in risky behaviors which can threaten their health (smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyles, etc.)
Medication is also an important factor in the mortality gap. Scientists originally believed that second-generation “atypical” antipsychotics would improve schizophrenics’ quality of life. Adverse side effects, including extreme weight gain and metabolic syndrome have, however, proven worrisome. Those with metabolic syndrome are 2 times as likely to die prematurely and 2 to 3 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease in particular. Individuals with schizophrenia, for several reasons, simply have not shared in the benefits of recent decades’ medical advances.