CONTACT: BECKY SOGLIN
2130 Medical Laboratories
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-6660; fax (319) 335-9917
Release: March 22, 1999
UI study finds social support may increase longevity of
people with schizophrenia
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The social environment of people with schizophrenia,
specifically the quantity of social support they receive, may
affect how long they live, according to a University of Iowa
study published in the March 22 issue of the journal Psychosomatic
Alan J. Christensen, UI associate professor of psychology
and the study's lead author, said the researchers found that
patients with schizophrenia who had frequent social interaction
lived on average 25 percent longer than patients who had little
or no social interaction.
"The findings are consistent with other studies that
show social factors are related to physical health and mortality
in individuals with medical conditions such as cancer, heart
disease or kidney disease," Christensen said. "We decided
to look at this question in terms of a psychiatric population."
Christensen developed the idea for the study along with research
team member Rachel A. Dornink, a first-year student at the UI
College of Medicine. As a UI undergraduate in psychology, Dornink
collected the project data as part of a senior honor thesis that
Christensen supervised. Other UI investigators included Susan
K. Schultz, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, and Shawna
L. Ehlers, doctoral student in clinical psychology.
The researchers examined the medical records of 133 patients
with schizophrenia who were admitted between 1934 and 1944 to
the former Iowa Psychopathic Hospital. All of the patients, 67
men and 66 women, had died by the time the study began. The researchers
assessed the quantity and quality of social resources available
to the patients, such as the number of close relationships patients
had and the quality of support provided by family or friends.
The team checked the State of Iowa Death Registry to determine
the date and cause of death for each individual. The study's
survival rate analysis adjusted for each individual's age at
time of admission.
"We found that the quantity of support significantly
predicted the longevity of the patients," Christensen said.
"The frequency of daily interactions with support providers
or confidants seemed to make a difference in these people's lives."
Other studies have shown that social support contributes favorably
to the body's immune system as well as cardiovascular and hormonal
functions. The researchers also suggested that the greater longevity
observed among patients with more frequent social interactions
might be due to the fact that social connections can help a person
reduce negative health behaviors such as smoking or substance
In contrast, the quality of social interactions, that is whether
they were negative or positive, did not indicate longevity for
patients with schizophrenia. That outcome is consistent with
other studies of the general population, but the researchers
also noted that this study's dependence on hospital records rather
than firsthand interviews might have masked the multifaceted
nature of social support. The study also showed that married
patients lived somewhat longer than unmarried patients.
The causes of death in the patients with schizophrenia were
similar to those found in the general population of that time
period. For example, cardiovascular disease caused more than
one-third of the deaths.
"The physical health of psychiatric patients has received
relatively little attention from researchers," Christensen
said. "The tendency has been to focus on the patients' psychiatric
health, yet these individuals don't live as long as the general
population. We hope the study is a step toward examining factors
that influence the long-term physical health of patients with
Schizophrenia commonly appears in the late teens or early
20s. People with the condition may have psychotic symptoms such
as delusions or hallucinations. Their relationships and careers
often deteriorate, and the person becomes alienated from others,
resulting in increased social isolation and a loss of social
support. Patients with schizophrenia may also be less likely
to seek and receive needed medical care, Christensen said.
He added that it will be important to examine whether social
support interventions can have a positive effect on the health
of people with schizophrenia.
Psychosomatic Medicine is the journal of the American Psychosomatic
Society. The UI study was published under the title "Social
Environment and Longevity in Schizophrenia."