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Keywords:

  • bipolar disorder;
  • Denmark;
  • follow-up studies;
  • lithium;
  • register study;
  • treatment outcome

Objectives:  From placebo-controlled studies of up to two years duration, it has been established that lithium has preventive efficacy in bipolar disorder (BD). However, the effectiveness of lithium under routine conditions seems less pronounced. In the present study, the overall 15.3-year outcome in BD patients commenced on lithium is described.

Methods:  Ninety-one patients with BD consecutively commenced on prophylactic lithium treatment during hospitalization at the Aarhus University Psychiatric Hospital from 1981 to 1983 were followed until death or censoring occurred during up to 15.3 years of observation. Register-based outcome measures, available for all patients, included accumulated duration of admission and number of admissions. In addition, serious attempts were made to collect detailed information on treatment during follow up. Simple descriptive statistics were applied; potential independent associations between baseline variables and outcome were examined using logistic regression models.

Results:  Of the 91 patients, 27 patients died (six from suicide) during the observation period, which was an excess mortality compared to the general population. Fifty percent of the patients were admitted for more than one month per 20 months of observation and admitted more than once for each four years of observation. Only 19 (21%) patients were not admitted to hospital during the observation period. No statistically significant predictors of poor outcome could be identified. In addition to lithium prophylaxis given for variable lengths of time, the majority of the 36 (40%) patients, from whom treatment data were available, received various other drug treatments during follow-up.

Conclusions:  The overall outcome in patients beginning prophylactic treatment is unsatisfactory. However, due to the observational design and the lack of detailed treatment information during the long follow-up period, inferences about the efficacy of lithium cannot be made from this study.