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Does Schizophrenia Get Worse as You Age?

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What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels, behaves and relates to reality. Although its exact prevalence is difficult to measure, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that between 0.25% and 0.64% of adults in the United States suffer from it.

The average age of onset in males tends to be in the late teens to early 20s, and for females, onset typically occurs in the late 20s to early 30s. People younger than 12 or older than 40 are less likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

That raises the question of whether someone diagnosed with schizophrenia in their 20s or 30s is likely to experience worsening symptoms as they grow older.

The short answer is that while this chronic, incurable disorder may worsen and improve in cycles over the years, it does not typically get more severe with age.

What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?

People with schizophrenia are impaired in the way they perceive reality. Sometimes, they can't tell what's real from what's imagined.

They experience hallucinations, hearing or seeing non-existent things. Often, they express illogical beliefs, speak with muddled dialect, express little or no emotion and neglect personal hygiene.

The question of precisely what causes schizophrenia remains unanswered. Researchers believe a combination of physical, genetic, psychological and environmental factors can make a person more likely to develop the condition.

Neuroimaging indicates people with schizophrenia have different brain structuring and neurotransmitters, which carry chemical signals ("messages") from one neuron (nerve cell) to the next target cell.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that no single physical or lab test can diagnose schizophrenia. A healthcare provider who evaluates the symptoms and the course of a person's illness over six months can help ensure a correct diagnosis.

Various tests are also available to help doctors rule out other issues and make a diagnosis. They include imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scans, spinal taps and electroencephalograms to measure your brain's electrical activity.

What is the long-term outlook for schizophrenia?

There is no cure for schizophrenia, but it is treatable. 

Antipsychotic medications can help make psychotic symptoms less intense and less frequent. Psychotherapy, also known as "talk therapy," can help people manage symptoms and overcome everyday challenges while working or establishing relationships. This therapy is often used in conjunction with medications.

Education programs are also available to help family and friends develop strategies to support those with the condition. The National Alliance of Mental Health has a support webpage to help people find resources.

It's important to understand that while schizophrenia is a serious, lifelong condition, it need not get worse as a person ages. It may increase and decrease in severity over the years, but it is possible to keep symptoms at bay to the point where someone with schizophrenia can go into remission and live reasonably well.

If you are living with schizophrenia or with someone who has it, finding ways to manage the ups and downs can help with quality-of-life issues. Mental health experts recommend keeping the mind and body active by engaging in regular social activities and exercising regularly.

For more information about Ochsner’s psychiatry and behavioral health services, click here.

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