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Long-Term Effects of Bipolar Disorder

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on September 02, 2020

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong mental condition. There’s no cure, but you can manage it with medication, talk therapy, and other forms of treatment. Even so, there are possible long-term effects. Here’s what you need to know.

Brain Changes

Research shows bipolar disorder may damage the brain over time. Experts think it’s because you slowly lose amino acids. They help build the proteins that make up the insulation around your neurons.

Over time, bipolar disorder may affect:

  • Memory
  • Concentration
  • Attention
  • Overall executive function (impulse control, organization, planning)

Your frontal lobe also might not work as well. That’s the part of your brain that helps you remember words and make decisions.

Medication

Some of the drugs used to treat bipolar disorder can change how your body functions the longer you use them.

The mood stabilizer lithium may cause problems with certain organs. These include:

Kidneys. Damage to your kidneys could trigger a form of diabetes called nephrogenic diabetes insipidus. In other words, your kidneys don’t respond to the hormone that controls fluid balance. Symptoms include always feeling thirsty and peeing a lot.

Thyroid.Hypothyroidism happens when your thyroid doesn’t make enough hormones. This can lead to:

Parathyroid. Hyperparathyroidism is when your parathyroid can’t manage calcium levels. It’s a less common long-term side effect, but it can cause:

Young women may be more at risk. If you take lithium, your doctor will likely run tests to make sure it’s working the right way.

You might also take an antipsychotic with a mood stabilizer if your mania and depression aren’t well-controlled. Over time, antipsychotics can raise your risk for:

  • Obesity
  • Glucose intolerance and diabetes
  • Dyslipidemia (abnormal lipid levels)
  • Movement disorders like dyskinesia or Parkinson’s disease

What Happens Without Treatment

Symptoms of bipolar disorder get worse when left untreated. Your depression and mania episodes tend to last longer and happen more often, especially as you get older. This could lead to:

You may think of death and suicide a lot, too. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime, day or night, at 800-273-8255.

Show Sources

SOURCES:


UCSF: “Study suggests bipolar disorder may cause progressive brain damage.”

Psychiatric Clinics of North America: “Cognitive and neurological impairment in mood disorders.”

Harvard Medical School: “Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depressive Illness or Manic Depression).”

Mayo Clinic: “Bipolar Disorder,” “Hypothyroidism,” “Hyperparathyroidism.”

Genetics Home Reference: “Bipolar Disorder.”

National Kidney Foundation: “Lithium and Chronic Kidney Disease.”

Cureus: “Lithium-induced Hyperparathyroidism and Hypercalcemia.”

The Lancet: “Long-term effects of lithium on renal, thyroid, and parathyroid function: a retrospective analysis of laboratory data.”

LabMedicine: “Metabolic Side Effects of Antipsychotic Medications: Clinical Laboratory Implications.”

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