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Conditions InDepth: Schizophrenia
by Amy Scholten, MPH
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and progressively disabling disease of the brain. People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms, such as hearing voices not heard by others, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn. Their speech and behavior can be so disorganized that they may be incomprehensible or frightening to others.
The combination of severe symptoms and chronic course of illness can cause a high degree of disability for those who suffer from schizophrenia. Approximately 1% of the population develops schizophrenia during their lifetime. More than 2 million Americans suffer from the illness. Although schizophrenia affects men and women with equal frequency, the disorder often appears earlier in men. Men are usually affected in their late teens or early twenties. Women are generally affected in their 20s-early 30s.
Researchers are not sure what causes schizophrenia. Problems with brain structure and chemistry are thought to play a role. There also appears to be a genetic component. Some have theorized that a viral infection in infancy and/or severe first trimester stress may increase the risk of schizophrenia in people who are more likely to develop the disease.
Schizophrenia increases a person’s risk of suicide, self-mutilation, substance abuse, and other social problems such as being unemployed, homeless, and incarcerated. Obsessive-compulsive disorder affects a significant number of people with schizophrenia.
What are the risk factors for schizophrenia?
What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?
How is schizophrenia diagnosed?
What are the treatments for schizophrenia?
Are there screening tests for schizophrenia?
How can I reduce my risk of schizophrenia?
What questions should I ask my doctor?
What is it like to live with schizophrenia?
Where can I get more information about schizophrenia?
Khashan AS, Abel KM, MacNamee R, et al. Higher risk of offspring schizophrenia following antenatal maternal exposure to severe adverse life events. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(2):146.
MacDonald AW, Schulz SC. What we know: findings that every theory of schizophrenia should explain. Schizophr Bull. 2009;35(3):493-508.
Schizophrenia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115234/Schizophrenia. Updated September 30, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016.
Stern TA, et al. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2008.
Sullivan PF, Daly MJ. Genetic architecture of psychiatric disorders: the emerging picture and its implications. Nat Rev Genet. 2012;13(8):537-551.
What is schizophrenia? National Alliance on Mental Illness website. Available at:
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Accessed November 7, 2012.
Last reviewed March 2017 by Adrian Preda, MD
Last Updated: 3/15/2015
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