Background: Bipolar disorder has generally been regarded as having a better functional outcome than schizophrenia. However, studies have suggested low functioning in bipolar patients even when they are in clinical remission. Our aim was to determine the degree of functioning and disability in bipolar patients. Secondly, we reviewed factors potentially associated with the low functioning of bipolar patients. Method: The authors conducted an extensive Medline and Pubmed search of the published literature from 1980 up to December 2007, using a variety of search terms to find relevant articles. Bibliographies of retrieved papers were further analysed for publications of interest. Articles that reported clinically significant findings on functioning and disability, and research reports were reviewed in detail. Results: From these articles, we determined that bipolar disorder is associated with significant impairment in work, family and social life, beyond the acute phases of the illness. The aspects that appear to increase the risk of low functioning and disability in bipolar patients are mainly subsyndromal symptoms and neurocognitive impairment, among others. Conclusions: Suitable pharmacological and psychological interventions may improve the level of functioning and reduce the disability in bipolar patients. Potential targets to be considered for intervention should be residual symptoms, comorbid conditions and neurocognitive deficits. Further research is required to better identify the factors that best predict functioning in bipolar patients.
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