People with Mental Disorders at Higher Risk of Developing Physical Illnesses

Women with anxiety are approximately 50 percent more likely to develop a heart condition or suffer a stroke. This is just one of many results on the relationship between mental disorders and physical illnesses, mapped out in a new nationwide demographic study from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University.


PHOTO: Hush Naidoo/Unsplash

The new research from the National Centre for Register-based Research (NCRR) at Aarhus BSS provides new insight into the risk of developing physical illnesses in people with mental disorders. Based on register data from 5.9 million people living in Denmark from 2000 to 2016, it is so far the most detailed study conducted on the physical health of people with mental disorders.

NCRR has previously published a well-known study about higher mortality rates among people with mental disorders where they relied on similar methods, utilising empirical data from national registers. Back then, the higher mortality rates were partly attributed to suicide, but with the new research data it has become evident that physical illnesses also significantly contribute to an increased mortality rate within the group.

"The study’s findings highlight which physical illnesses to screen for, thereby securing early treatment"

Natalie Momen, postdoc,  National Centre for Register-based Research (NCRR), Department of Economics and Business Economics, Aarhus BSS

New knowledge can help physicians

Among researchers and general practitioners, it is well-known that people with mental disorders are at higher risk of being diagnosed with physical illnesses compared to the general population. This, however, is the first study to map out a wide range of mental disorders and comorbid physical illnesses.

‘In our study, we have presented the general risk of developing different types of physical illnesses, but we also report the proportion of people with mental disorders who go on to develop physical illnesses. This type of information can help physicians plan ahead when they care for people with mental disorders. The study’s findings highlight which physical illnesses to screen for, thereby securing early treatment,’ says postdoc Natalie Momen, lead author of the study.

The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the world’s most acclaimed scientific journals.

Attention to various conditions

In one example of the connection between two disorders, the researchers compared women with anxiety to women of similar age without anxiety, and then examined the risk of developing heart conditions and strokes. The new study found that women diagnosed with anxiety have a 50 percent increased risk of developing a heart condition. Within 15 years of being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, 3 in 10 women will develop a heart condition or suffer a stroke.

The risks for men with substance-related disorders, such as alcohol abuse, are even more worrying. Compared to men at the same age without substance abuse, the risk of getting liver or gut disorders increases 400 percent, and 1 in 5 men with substance abuse will go on to develop a liver or gut disorder within a 15-year span.

Affects quality of life

Examining ten types of mental disorders and nine broad categories of physical illnesses, such as heart conditions and gastric diseases, the research shows that in people with the majority of mental disorders, there is an increased risk of developing the examined physical illnesses.

‘Comorbidity between mental disorders and physical illnesses affects a person’s quality of life. These individuals will need additional medical care and more careful monitoring. We know that these physical illnesses can reduce their life expectancy. Therefore, we need to find better ways to monitor and treat physical illnesses in those with mental disorders,’ says Dr Anders Prior, general practitioner and co-author of the new study.

The researchers behind the study

The study was completed as part of the Niels Bohr Professorship Research Programme at Aarhus University, which is led by Professor John McGrath. Funded by the Danish National Research Foundation, this research aims to explore innovative methods related to psychiatric epidemiology. Dr Natalie Momen is a postdoc specialised in epidemiology, and Dr Anders Prior is a general practitioner and postdoc with expertise in comorbidity.

Read the article: Association between Mental Disorders and Later Medical Conditions

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