For decades, evidence has suggested that people with schizophrenia have shortened lifespans. In the early twentieth century, doctors observed that these patients tended to die younger and seemed less healthy than other patients in the same psychiatric hospitals. And today, schizophrenia patients appear to suffer from heart, lung and metabolic problems at a disproportionate rate — and at startlingly young ages.
There are plenty of potential culprits: suicide, for example, along with the negative side effects of antipsychotic medications, substance abuse, smoking and poor health care — any one of which could explain why people with schizophrenia die 15–25 years earlier, on average, than those in the general population.
But some researchers believe that these external factors do not fully account for the reduced longevity. They point out that the increased mortality among schizophrenia patients predates the widespread use of antipsychotics, encompasses diverse causes of death, and has been documented even among patients who are receiving high-quality medical care. These observations have led several investigators to propose a new explanation for the early deaths of those with schizophrenia: the ageing process itself speeds up. “Our hypothesis is that one of the reasons that they die younger is because they get old faster than the general population,” says Brian Kirkpatrick, a psychiatrist at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Reno.
Accelerated ageing, Kirkpatrick and several other scientists say, may be a fundamental part of the schizophrenia pathology. This belief is supported by numerous studies of physiological, neurological and cognitive abnormalities in people with the disorder. Researchers are now trying to determine precisely how schizophrenia and ageing are related. They hope that fresh insights into the disease will help people with schizophrenia stay healthy longer, and possibly even point the way to better treatments.