Bipolar Disorder: Prevalence and Characteristics

In last week's column I discussed the common occurrence of depression and bipolar disorder in general medical practice. Today I'd like to talk more specifically about the prevalence and characteristics of bipolar disorder in Canada.

As you know, bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic depression) is a serious mood disorder involving dramatic shifts from the lows of depression to the reckless and dangerous highs of mania.

A recent survey of more than 37,000 Canadians over the age of 15 found that this condition affects just over two per cent of the population. This number is likely an underestimate, but still means that more than 500,000 Canadians experience bipolar disorder. A striking number made even more so because the condition is still poorly understood by most people.

This survey found that the condition affects men and women equally and the average age of onset is 23. However, more than half began experiencing symptoms before the age of 21. Until recently, many professionals believed that bipolar disorder was a condition only for adults. Now we know that it often affects people even in their childhood and teenage years, but is difficult to diagnose at a young age because it can be easily mistaken for attention deficit disorder or other behaviour problems affecting children.

Not only is bipolar disorder dangerous in itself, but it also increases a person's risk of experiencing other psychiatric problems throughout life.

Fifty two percent of people with bipolar disorder in this survey had also experienced an anxiety disorder at some point during their lives and researchers say you are more than eight times as likely to experience an anxiety disorder if you also have bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, substance abuse is also much more common among individuals with bipolar disorder. According to these researchers, bipolar disorder doubles the odds of a substance abuse disorder in any given year.

Along with the mood swings and unpredictability of bipolar disorder comes a less stable life in general.

Perhaps because of difficulty in getting and keeping employment or reaching full potential in education or job training because of the nature of bipolar symptoms, the condition is associated with low income. A significant proportion of bipolar patients live at or below the poverty line.

Not surprisingly, BC is not only the province with the most poverty in Canada, but also the province with the highest rate of bipolar disorder at 2.9 percent.

Given the association of bipolar disorder with anxiety and substance use disorders, it is very important that treatment not only address symptoms but also housing and employment needs to assist bipolar patients in achieving a stable and sustainable lifestyle.

Bipolar disorder can be extremely disruptive and disabling to an individual's life. There is no cure for this condition and although moods shift periodically and there are times of relative normalcy, it is a disorder that stays with people throughout life. Getting effective treatment is critical and should involve a combination of therapy and medications to achieve mood stabilization.

Okanagan Clinical Trials currently has two studies of investigational medications in the treatment of bipolar disorder. If you are over the age of 18 and experiencing bipolar disorder, contact our office for information or a free, no obligation medical assessment to determine if you are eligible to participate. During the study all medication, lab work and tests are provided free of charge and do not affect your regular or extended medical coverage.


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