Diagnosis: Bipolarity's Hidden Hazards

Biological and behavioral complications can cause early death in bipolar individuals.

By Mina Shaghaghi, published on September 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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Suicide isn't causing the majority of premature deaths among bipolar individuals. Strokes, diabetes, and heart and respiratory diseases are the culprits. Researchers combed through 17 studies involving over 300,000 patients and found that bipolar disorder doubles the risk for early death from common medical conditions.

Biological complications are one issue—the illness taxes the immune system and heightens reactions to stress. Lifestyle choices among bipolar individuals, such as binge eating and substance abuse, are gaining recognition as further fatal factors. "Mental health professionals should be counseling patients with these chronic mental illnesses about wellness habits," says study co-author Wayne Katon of the University of Washington.

Medication helps, but may lead to weight gain. However, Katon says medications have several varieties within each class, so doctors can always try prescribing another.

From Outgoing to Manic

Bubbly extroverts are more likely to develop bipolar disorder, according to a new Finnish study.

The results suggest extroversion and bipolar disorder have a common cause—perhaps the triggering of a particular gene regulating neurotransmitter re-uptake—says researcher Jan-Erik Lönnqvist. However, Lönnqvist believes it is unlikely all manifestations of extroversion arise from the same source. "It would be important to specify which of extroversion's specific manifestations predict the development of bipolar disorder," he says, in order to screen high-risk groups and focus pharmaceutical treatments.

And because extroverts enjoy company, Lönnqvist suggests bipolar patients might benefit more from group psychotherapy than individual treatment.