Increasing life expectancy for people with schizophrenia is possible with reduced stigma, better medical access, and other public health efforts.
Schizophrenia and life expectancy can be a complex topic. While schizophrenia in itself is not necessarily a common cause of death, people diagnosed with this condition may potentially have a lower life expectancy than people without the condition.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), the average life expectancy of people with schizophrenia in the United States may shrink by
Schizophrenia’s lower life expectancy might be related to health conditions that commonly co-occur with this disorder, such as:
- heart disease
- liver disease
People with schizophrenia tend to often have a higher chance of experiencing death by suicide than people without schizophrenia. The NIMH estimates that 4.9% of people living with schizophrenia die by suicide, particularly in the early stages of onset and development.
But it’s important to know that public health experts, mental health professionals, and the schizophrenia community at large can offer us decades of research and lived experience to begin to understand — and possibly change — life expectancy outcomes for people with this condition.
People with schizophrenia are often 3.5 times more likely than people without the diagnosis to die each year, according to a
The decline in life expectancy among people with severe mental health conditions ranges from
Research from 2020 found that addressing adjustable risk factors could increase life expectancy in people with schizophrenia by
Clara S. Humpston, PhD, a research fellow at University of Birmingham, breaks down the reasons for lower life expectancy into three categories.
These comorbidities and related conditions often overlap and can sometimes be life threatening for people with schizophrenia, including:
- Biological: cardiovascular disease, cancer (particularly lung cancer), diabetes, influenza, neurodevelopmental deficits
- Personal: loneliness and isolation, unhealthy lifestyle (such as eating less nutritious foods due to lower costs), substance misuse, being in a larger body
- Social: accidental death, suicide, extreme stress, trauma, poverty due to larger rates of unemployment
The influence of suicide cannot be overstated in conversations about deaths for this population. A 2021 study found that people with schizophrenia may face a
“Individuals with schizophrenia face serious stigma, alienation, and ostracization from their community, which fuel feelings of isolation, powerlessness, and lack of a sense of belonging,” says Humpston.
She continues: “All these factors form a vicious cycle. It is difficult for an individual to break the cycle.”
Remember that you’re not alone and resources are available to you. If you need to talk with someone right away, you can:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Textline at 741741.
Not in the United States? You can find a helpline in your country with Befrienders Worldwide.
To understand how long-term antipsychotic treatments for people with schizophrenia impact deaths, researchers examined what caused death for 66,881 patients with schizophrenia and compared those statistics with 5.2 million, the population of Finland.
A 2021 study also shared that not taking antipsychotic medication can doubly increase the chance of death.
Complications from side effects
The story around how medication for schizophrenia impacts health outcomes isn’t a simple one. Antipsychotics can have side effects that can be difficult to manage.
Humpton told Psych Central that while antipsychotic medication can reduce some symptoms of schizophrenia, such as delusions, they can worsen others, like lack of motivation.
“It is [what is known as] the ‘negative symptoms’ that tend to impact daily social functioning and contribute to longer-term disability and impairment,” she says.
This approach can help doctors ensure that someone with schizophrenia can still make decisions conducive to functioning in everyday life.
Broome and Humpston suggested that the medical community might achieve greater understanding of a patient’s sense of self by listening to their personal experience, even if it doesn’t always seem “real.”
Including the voices of people with schizophrenia in media, research, and advocacy could be a powerful first step to working toward better health outcomes for people with the condition.
Increasing life expectancy might include the following interventions:
- increasing access to care
- better medical training
- more aggressive identification and management of cardiovascular risk factors
- reducing tobacco use and substance misuse
- reducing isolation through support groups and peer advocacy
- mental health awareness campaigns
- promoting — and providing access to — healthy lifestyle options
- early intervention of psychosis
- targeted treatment of symptoms
- better education for the public
- offering more robust and targeted suicide prevention programs for people with schizophrenia
Humpston says, “Society’s active exclusion of — and stigma against — people with severe mental illnesses have done far more harm than the illnesses themselves.”
When researchers analyzed the number of injuries among people with severe mental health conditions across four Chicago police departments in 2008, they found
“Both the medical community and the general public have a long way to go in terms of changing attitudes,” Humpston continues.
Working together to change societal attitudes about schizophrenia may help to reduce fear and stigma, particularly when it relates to the behaviors that can happen from the diagnosis. This change in attitudes can, in turn, encourage broader conversations about equitable access to healthcare.
When a higher chance of death exists for any health condition, there’s an urgent need for intervention and initiatives to address gaps in understanding, access, and education.
With a condition so historically misunderstood and shrouded in stigma, an even greater need for further research and research implementation is often necessary to reverse the reality of lower life expectancy for people with schizophrenia.
It’s important to remember that the information about average life expectancy doesn’t always apply to an individual. Humpston says, “Every individual is different, and population estimates cannot be simply or easily extrapolated to a single person.”
If you are living with schizophrenia and need to find care, Psych Central’s guide to seeking mental health care can be the first step on your journey. And if your loved one is living with the condition, learning the best ways to support them can make all the difference.