Harvard Mental Health Letter

Metabolic syndrome and mental illness

Weight gain and other unhealthy attributes increase risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of people with mental illness — in large part because of the high prevalence of metabolic syndrome in this population. People with metabolic syndrome have at least three of five closely related conditions (see sidebar). Each factor is undesirable on its own, but when several occur together, they interact to raise the stakes even higher. People with metabolic syndrome are five times more likely than healthy adults to develop diabetes and twice as likely to develop heart disease.

Although metabolic syndrome affects nearly a quarter of all Americans — roughly 50 million people — those with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are especially vulnerable. Antipsychotic medications in particular can cause significant weight gain. Other contributing factors include smoking, inadequate nutrition, lack of exercise, and limited access to quality health care.

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