Background: Premature mortality observed among the mentally ill is largely attributable to chronic illnesses. Veterans seen within Veterans Affairs (VA) have a higher prevalence of mental illness than the general population but there is limited investigation into the common causes of death of Veterans with mental illnesses.
Objective: To characterize the life expectancy of mentally ill Veterans seen in VA primary care, and to determine the most death rates of combinations of mental illnesses.
Design: Retrospective cohort study of decedents.
Setting/participants: Veterans seen in VA primary care clinics between 2000 and 2011 were included. Records from the VA Corporate Data Warehouse (CDW) were merged with death information from the National Death Index.
Main measures: Mental illnesses were determined using ICD9 codes. Direct standardization methods were used to calculate age-adjusted gender and cause-specific death rates per 1000 deaths for patients with and without depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder (SUD), serious mental illness (SMI), and combinations of those diagnoses.
Key results: Of the 1,763,982 death records for Veterans with 1 + primary care visit, 556,489 had at least one mental illness. Heart disease and cancer were the two leading causes of death among Veterans with or without a mental illness, accounting for approximately 1 in 4 deaths. Those with SUD (n = 204,950) had the lowest mean age at time of death (64 ± 12 years). Among men, the death rates were as follows: SUD (55.9/1000); anxiety (49.1/1000); depression (45.1/1000); SMI (40.3/1000); and PTSD (26.2/1000). Among women, death rates were as follows: SUD (55.8/1000); anxiety (36.7/1000); depression (45.1/1000); SMI (32.6/1000); and PTSD (23.1/1000 deaths). Compared to men (10.8/1000) and women (8.7/1000) without a mental illness, these rates were multiple-fold higher in men and in women with a mental illness. A greater number of mental illness diagnoses was associated with higher death rates among men and women (p < 0.0001).
Conclusions: Veterans with mental illnesses, particularly those with SUD, and those with multiple diagnoses, had shorter life expectancy than those without a mental illness. Future studies should examine both patient and systemic sources of disparities in providing chronic illness care to Veterans with a mental illness.
Keywords: Veterans; cause of death; mental disorders; primary care medical home.