Heart Disease is a Silent Killer for those with Severe Mental Health Disorders

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Nov 15 2009 - 9:01am

A large study has concluded that people who suffer from severe mental health disorders such as schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders are 25 percent to 40 percent more likely to die from heart disease.

The study was the largest of its kind and was lead by Amy Kilbourne, Ph.D. associate director of the VA Ann Arbor National Serious Mental Illness Treatment Research and Evaluation Center in Michigan. There she and colleagues from Dartmouth Medical School conducted the study, which appears in the November-December issue of the journal General Hospital Psychiatry.

The study viewed results from the 1999 Large Health Survey of Veteran enrollees in conjunction with the VA's National Psychosis Registry and the National Death Index of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention including responses from more than 147,000 veterans. Most of the respondents were men and about two-thirds were 50 or older.

The study not only discovered that those with severe mental health disorders suffered from more heart attacks, it also took note that smoking and physical inactivity as well as other behaviors that people could change to improve health significantly contribute to this increased risk of death.

Patients with mental disorders who also had a diagnosis of diabetes which is a known risk factor for heart disease were at high risk for heart disease-related mortality, as were patients with a diagnosis of dementia.

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"These are devastating illnesses that lead to a lot of functional impairment, so many of these individuals have difficulty staying motivated to exercise to begin with, or finding places where they feel comfortable exercising," Kilbourne said.

It was noted that even when considering factors such as diabetes and lifestyle, researchers discovered that patients with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders were more than likely perish from heart disease.

"This suggests that we are either missing some factor, or there is something inherent about having these disorders that puts patients at greater risk for heart disease-related mortality," Kilbourne said.

Eric Goplerud, Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrated Behavioral Health Policy in Washington, stated that results of this study as well as other studies suggest that people with serious severe mental health disorders are less likely to receive medical screening and preventive care. He stated that the lack of coordinated care has serious consequences: "Serving their mental needs in one stovepipe and their medical needs in another is probably associated with premature mortality."

"The issue of cardiovascular disease in this population is huge," Goplerud said. "As we look at national health reform, it is absolutely critical that people with mental illness and addictions be included, they are dying of preventable medical conditions."

Written by Tyler Woods Ph.D.
Tucson, Arizona
Exclusive to eMaxHealth

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