Anyone who has ever faced depression knows that it's a lifelong battle. It doesn't just "go away," even if you've spent years receiving the appropriate treatment, working with medical professionals, and being supported by compassionate friends and family. We can get better, we can grow and find ways to stay healthy; but that doesn't mean we will ever be cured, per se.
Having a mental illness takes an immense toll on your whole body, not just the brain. You might face weight gain and change in blood pressure, chronic fatigue and insomnia, or decreased sex drive and back pain. The ups and downs of depression have effects on the body in the long-run as well, and scientists have been conducting research to find out what exactly those effects are.
Recently, as a result of the investigations, we've been confronted with the unpleasant reality that a person dealing with recurrent depression might live a shorter life than someone who has never been diagnosed with the illness. There are numerous different studies at our fingertips on the topic, and we can no longer deny the fact that depression could be "a potential contributor to early mortality," according to Kara Zivin, lead author of a Veterans Affairs study published in Psychiatric Services.
There are 350 million people in the world today who are affected by some form of depression, which means there are 350 million people in the world today who might face shorter life expectancy than everyone else. Sad although this news is, learning more about why this is true can only help us raise awareness and thus address the issue. Here are the facts about depression and longevity that you need to know:
Do People With Depression Really Live Shorter Lives?
Google the topic and you'll immediately see that there's a huge pool of research you can swim through — and nearly all of it confirms that, yes, having depression, more often than not, reduces life expectancy. For example, in August 2012, the journal Psychiatric Services released information gathered from a study on Veterans Affairs (VA) patients, confirming that clinical depression shortens lives. The adults in the study who suffered from depression died an average of five years earlier than the cases who hadn't been diagnosed.
This year, JAMA Psychiatry published data from more than 200 international studies that took place over the span of several decades. The general finding was that those with depression were twice as likely to die in the next 10 years than those without it; also, the risk of passing away from health conditions such as a heart attack rose by 80 percent in patients with a mental illness.
As if that's not enough, at Oxford University, researchers found that struggling with depression may cut off as many years of your life as smoking does — seven to 11 years. In 2006, a similar study on mortality rates claimed that people with severe depression face a life expectancy that is decreased anywhere between 13 and 31 years.
The specific statistics may range from one research team to the next, but the overall outcome is pretty much consistent across the board: it's expected that individuals with depression will die much sooner than the rest of the world — and much sooner than they should. Another scary fact is that, since the 1970s, this "mortality gap" between those with and without depression has increased.
What About People With Other Mental Illnesses?
Dr. Seena Fazel of the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University told Science Daily that it's not just clinical depression that shortens people's lives; he says "many health diagnoses are associated with a drop in life expectancy," so we need to pay just as much attention to individuals out there who are suffering from other similar disorders.
The researchers at Oxford University specifically noted that people with bipolar disorder may see nine to 20 less years on earth, while those diagnosed with schizophrenia will probably live 10 to 20 years less. Diseases like chronic anxiety, manic depression, and eating disorders also decrease potential longevity, although the above studies don't note exactly how many years may be lost in these categories.
Keeping in mind that many psychiatric illnesses overlap with one another, it's certainly not easy to predict life expectancy in many cases. While it's much more common to see people suffering from depression and anxiety, it's important to keep in mind that the more severe the illness, such as schizophrenia, the higher the mortality rate.
Why Does Mental Illness Result In A Shorter Lifespan?
Dr. Fazel said we tend to make the mistake of separating mental and physical health, and, in doing so, we forget that mental illnesses have an enormous impact on the rest of the body. Individuals who suffer from mental illnesses, whether it's depression or schizophrenia, are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse, which takes off another 9-24 years from your life. They're also at a higher risk to engage in self-harm and suicide attempts, which decrease overall well-being in the long run.
Furthermore, these folks are more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. These are perhaps the most concerning issues that stem from mental illnesses, as they lead to a quick decline in physical health, resulting in premature death. Other similar chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, are much more prevalent in this group of people too, and due to the lack of motivation that comes along with something like depression, they aren't able to correctly manage the relevant symptoms.
The greatest takeaway from the analyses in JAMA Psychiatry was the fact that most of the early deaths weren't directly due to the diagnosed mental illnesses. It's the health issues that stem from illnesses like depression that we have to look out for — heart attack or stroke, for example — because mentally unwell people are much more likely to be hit with these than those who have never faced the same disorders.
What Can We Do About It?
According to Dr. John Williams, head of neuroscience and mental health at the Wellcome Trust, people suffering from mental illnesses are "among the most vulnerable in society." Sadly, it's this very group of vulnerable people who don't have the access they need to proper health care; it can't come as much of a surprise that they are more likely to face death earlier than their peers.
The system needs to change, adds Dr. Fazel, and he's sure that it's a feasible task. He urges medical care providers and the government to "make mental health a much higher priority for research and innovation." Sure, we may talk about depression more than ever, but that doesn't mean it's considered a serious public health issue by society as a whole — and it should be. By raising awareness, though, both politically and socially, we can help to bring in funding to related research as well as encourage our politicians and leaders to take a closer look at the issue.
Furthermore, people with mental disorders generally live in areas ridden with poverty, are more likely to be unemployed, and many don't receive the typical family support that many of us take for granted. For starters, we can pay more attention to what our neighbors and friends are lacking in their everyday life, because without the right foundation, these bleak statistics will never improve. One way to achieve this is by getting involved with non-profit organizations across the country that are committed to helping the underserved population wrestling with depression and anxiety.
Don't forget that the language we use about depression also matters a great deal. The smallest changes in our everyday conversations can make a bigger difference than you could ever imagine — and who knows? They could even help people live a little bit longer.
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