Study Shows That People With Serious Mental Illness Can Lose Weight

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People with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression can lose weight and keep it off through a modified lifestyle intervention program, a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)-funded study reported online in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Over 80 percent of people with serious mental illnesses are overweight or obese, which contributes to them dying at three times the rate of the overall population. They succumb mostly to the same things the rest of the population experiences—cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Although antipsychotic medications increase appetite and cause weight gain in these patients, it is not the only culprit. Like the general population, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet also play a part. Lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise should work for these patients, yet they are often left out of weight loss studies.

“People with serious mental illnesses are commonly excluded from studies to help them help themselves about their weight,” said Gail L. Daumit, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and the study’s lead author. “We’re showing that serious mentally ill patients can make successful, sustained changes with proper interventions.”

This study could usher in new forms of weight loss treatment for people with serious mental illness.

“Until now, obesity among those with serious mental illnesses has not received adequate attention,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “People with serious mental illnesses need more attention to their physical health. This study provides convincing evidence these individuals can make substantial lifestyle changes and therefore should suffer fewer medical complications as they age.”

Other factors that preclude people with serious mental illnesses from losing weight include memory impairments or residual psychiatric symptoms that impede learning and adopting new behaviors such as counting calories. Socioeconomics are also a factor as many can’t afford or can’t get to physical activity programs like fitness gyms. Some patients additionally suffer from social phobia or have poor social interactions, and are simply afraid to work out in a public area.

Daumit’s group attempted to solve these issues by bringing the gyms and nutritionists to places most of these patients frequent—psychiatric rehabilitation outpatient programs. Under the trial name ACHIEVE, the researchers randomized 291 participants in 10 rehab centers around Maryland to receive the usual care, consisting of nutrition and physical activity information, or six months of intensive intervention consisting of exercise classes three times a week along with individual or group weight loss classes once a week. Both groups were followed for an additional year, during which the weight loss classes of the intervention arm tapered down but the exercise classes remained constant. The intervention arm included goals such as reducing caloric intake by avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages and junk food; eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily; choosing smaller portions and healthy snacks; and moderate intensity aerobic exercise.

Participants in the specially tailored weight loss program lost seven pounds more than the controls—and continued to lose weight and did not regain, despite the reduced frequency of classes and counseling sessions. In contrast, the general population tends to experience peak weight loss in the first six months and then rebound and gain part or all of their weight back.

On average, each participant was on three psychotropic medications, with half on lithium or mood stabilizers, all known to cause weight gain. But no matter what they were on, they lost the weight.

“We’re showing behavioral interventions work regardless of what they’re taking,” Daumit said. Her group is now looking for ways to spread the program.

–National Institute of Mental Health

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