Bipolar Disorder: Key Q&A

Q: What is bipolar disorder?
A: Bipolar disorder is a cycling mood disorder characterized by alternating periods of depression and mania. A mood disorder is a mental illness characterized primarily by mood swings or an abnormally high or low mood. Manic episodes are periods of abnormal highs in mood. Depressive episodes are periods of abnormal lows in mood. Some types of bipolar disorder can be diagnosed when only a manic episode has occurred. Bipolar depression may also be called manic depression.

Q: How common is bipolar disorder?

A: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 5.7 million adult Americans are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The condition occurs across all races and ethnic backgrounds. In general, men and women are affected equally. However, men are more likely to experience a manic episode before a depressive episode. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to have a major depressive episode before a manic episode and are more likely to have more depressive episodes than manic episodes. Women are also more likely to experience rapid cycling. Rapid cycling occurs when a person has four or more episodes per year.

Q: At what age is bipolar disorder most likely to develop?

A: The onset of bipolar disorder usually occurs in late adolescence or early adulthood, and the average age at onset is 20. However, the disorder can occur at any age, including over 50. Bipolar disorder was once thought to be very rare in children under the age of 12, but recent studies show it may be more common than was previously believed.

Q: How dangerous is bipolar disorder?

A: People with bipolar disorder can have delusions of invulnerability may lead to dangerous, reckless behavior. Furthermore, according to Mental Health America, untreated bipolar disorder can lead to suicide in up to 15 percent of cases. In some cases, alcohol abuse and other substance abuse problems occur in patients with bipolar disorder and may worsen their condition. Bipolar disorder also significantly impacts the economy, resulting in functional impairment, disability or loss of productivity for those affected. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, bipolar disorder is among the top 10 causes of disability worldwide.

Q: Are there different types of bipolar disorder?

A: Yes. Bipolar disorder is divided into four categories. Bipolar I disorder is the most common type of bipolar disorder. This diagnosis requires at least one manic or mixed episode, and episodes of major depression have usually occurred, but are not required for diagnosis. Bipolar II disorder is diagnosed when at least one episode of hypomania and one episode of major depression have occurred. For this diagnosis, you must have never had a manic or mixed episode. Cyclothymia is a cycling between hypomania and lows in mood that do not meet the criteria for major depressive episodes. These milder episodes may be less severe or shorter in duration. They are, however, chronic, and they last for at least two years with no lapse in symptoms for more than two months at a time. Nonspecified bipolar disorder is diagnosed if your bipolar disorder has features that do not match those noted above. This may be more common in early onset bipolar disorder.

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