According to the National Institute of Mental Health, schizophrenia symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and disorganized speech or behavior typically begin between the ages of 16 and 30. This serious lifelong mental illness affects males and females in all ethnic groups equally. Historically, it shortens life expectancy by 20 to 25 years. Yet many schizophrenics are living into their 70s and 80s. This unexpected incidence raises new concerns on how this chronic brain disorder affects older Americans’ health.
Aging Schizophrenics Face More Health Concerns
A new study that followed over 30,000 older adults for 10 years found that schizophrenics were twice as likely to develop dementia as people without this mental condition. Thanks to improved diagnosis and treatment methods, schizophrenia patients are living longer today. But Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University researchers discovered that longevity makes them susceptible to additional major medical conditions like dementia that afflict the elderly.
Dementia occurred in 64 percent of study subjects with schizophrenia, compared to 32 percent of the others. Schizophrenics also had higher rates of other serious illnesses such as heart and pulmonary diseases, low thyroid function and increased mortality risks. Schizophrenics’ congestive heart failure rates were 45 percent, compared to 38 percent in others. Those with schizophrenia also were more likely to die during the follow-up period. Yet their chances of developing cancer were significantly lower. Just 30 percent of schizophrenics had received a cancer diagnosis, compared to 43 percent of other participants.
This study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, also found that hospital and nursing home admissions along with lengths of stay in both were significantly greater for patients with schizophrenia than those without it. But surprisingly, schizophrenics’ hospitalizations usually were for physical, not mental, illnesses.
Researchers couldn’t pinpoint why dementia occurs more in schizophrenics. They surmised that when a doctor has trouble understanding what an older patient is saying, he may misdiagnose dementia when schizophrenia is causing communication problems. Or a unique form of dementia may develop in schizophrenics. The lower cancer rates also puzzled the study team. Previous studies have found reduced gastrointestinal cancer rates in schizophrenics. So the researchers speculated that antipsychotic medicines also may have cancer-protecting properties.
The researchers obtained clinical data on 31,588 patients from the Regenstrief Medical Record System. All study subjects had received care at Eskenazi Health, formerly Wishard Health Services from 1999 to 2008. They had an average age of 70. All were at least 65 by the end of the study. During the 10-year study period, researchers focused on the 757 adults who’d received their schizophrenia diagnoses from mental health centers. Although 1635 people had schizophrenia, the study team omitted the 878 patients who’d received their diagnoses elsewhere. This study highlighted the need for aging schizophrenics to seek mental and medical health care jointly.
Medications Relieve Schizophrenia Symptoms
Unfortunately, schizophrenia is unpreventable. Genetics, environmental factors (like early childhood trauma and moving away from home) and early drug use may trigger schizophrenia. It may cause an overactivity of dopamine, a natural compound that transmits messages between your brain cells. Seeking medical treatment after the first schizophrenic episode can reduce the extent of future psychotic symptoms including hearing voices, seeing things that aren’t there and having delusional beliefs.
Prescription medications include typical antipsychotic drugs like Clopixol (Zuclopenthixol Dihydrochloride). This potent neuroleptic blocks dopamine receptor activity to balance this neurotransmitter in your brain. Treatment can lead to feelings of well-being while helping reduce hallucinations and other schizophrenia symptoms including disturbed thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Atypical antipsychotics like Geodon (Ziprasidone) rebalance your dopamine and serotonin levels. They may decrease your hallucinations or delusions significantly. In some cases, they may disappear altogether. Other benefits include improved thinking, mood and behavior. Every patient reacts differently to antipsychotic drugs, so you may need to try several before finding the one that works best for you.
Regular Physical Activity Reduces Your Dementia Risk
A study of 639 non-disabled adults in their 60s and 70s found that the 64 percent who engaged in regular physical activity reduced their risk of developing dementia by 40 percent. At least 30 minutes of moderately intense activity three times a week also lowered their risk of cognitive impairment by 60 percent. Activities included gym classes, walking and biking.
This multinational European study included 55 percent women. Researchers conducted annual comprehensive cognitive assessments for three years. They performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests at the beginning and end of the study to gauge white matter changes in the brain, an indicator of possible cognitive decline.
At the end of the study, 90 patients had dementia including 54 with vascular dementia in which impaired blood flow to the brain causes cognitive decline. Just 34 people met the criteria for Alzheimer’s disease. Another 147 participants developed cognitive impairment but not dementia. The results support increasing evidence that regular physical activity promotes brain health.
Manage Your Mental and Physical Health
Taking care of your health is vital as you age — especially if you have schizophrenia. This mental disorder requires long-term treatment to minimize your symptoms. Be vigilant about taking your medication on schedule. Do not stop or skip doses — even when you feel better. That may make each recurring psychotic episode worse. Also see your doctor promptly if any other mental or physical conditions arise. Proper treatment can help you manage multiple health concerns to increase your quality of life.