What’s the average lifespan of someone with bipolar disorder? Now that I’m in my 50s, and now that I’ve lived with the diagnosis for nearly three decades, I wonder if I’ll live as long as others without the disorder. According to research, probably not.
When predicting lifespan, or longevity, researchers take some baseline perfectly healthy mythical creature and call their lifespan x. This varies with age at the time of measure, and is influenced by demographic and socio-economic factors. Then the researchers calculate longevity by naming a number of years less than x that a person is expected to live if they have a diagnosed medical condition. The idea is that the medical condition, or some related condition, will kill one off early.
Researchers at Oxford University calculate that individuals with bipolar disorder have a longevity rate 9 – 20 years less than optimal. So if a population’s average lifespan is 75, a person with bipolar disorder is expected to live between 55 and 66 years.
Bipolar’s decrease in longevity of 9-20 years should be compared with schizophrenia at 10-20 years, alcohol and drug abuse at 9-24, recurrent depression at 7-11, and heavy smoking at 8-10 (all of these numbers are from the Oxford study). The implication is that bipolar disorder is much worse for your health than heavy smoking.
Possible reasons for the decrease in longevity are many. The most obvious are the rate of high-risk behaviors, unhealthy lifestyle, and suicide experienced by many with bipolar disorder. Oxidative stress, which inhibits cell growth and replenishment, can also be a culprit. Co-morbidity also surely plays a role in lowering longevity.
People with bipolar disorder show higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and COPD than the general population, and these remain the top three causes of death of people with bipolar disorder.
Another factor that may influence longevity in those with bipolar disorder is the fact that people with mental illness don’t always access healthcare effectively.
A 2015 study at the University of Copenhagen shows more exact, and more promising, statistics. They show the decrease in lifespan for men with bipolar disorder who are between the ages of 25 and 45 to be 8.7 to 12.0 years. For women the numbers are 8.3 to 10.6.
The study in Denmark also revealed that the numbers improve in older individuals, so that a person who makes it to 75 with bipolar disorder has longevity rates that are only about three years less than the baseline. The study also concludes that the earlier in life someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the more negative effect the condition has on their longevity.
So armed with these numbers, what can a person with bipolar disorder do to help themselves live longer? Obviously, live as healthy a life as you can. It’s interesting to note that most of the causes of death noted in the reports have strong lifestyle components in their causes. These causes we can mitigate. Adhere to prescribed treatment, live well, and minimize stress. That’s a prescription we can all follow.
So do I feel any better? After the initial shock that I may be living on borrowed time, I found the reports encouraging. The scary thing about affective disorders like bipolar disorder is the sense of loss of control over episodes of mood changes. But lifestyle factors are within our control, and a healthy lifestyle can definitely improve anyone’s probable outcome and longevity.