Those Who Fear Serious Illness More Likely to Die Sooner: Study

By   |  December 14, 2023

By Robin Foster HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2023 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

THURSDAY, Dec. 14, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Having severe hypochondria can prompt hours of needless worrying, but in an ironic twist new research now shows it could also shorten your life.

New Swedish research found people diagnosed with an excessive fear of serious illness tended to die earlier than people who don't constantly fret about their health.

“Many of us are mild hypochondriacs. But there are also people on the other extreme of the spectrum who live in a perpetual state of worry and suffering and rumination about having a serious illness,” Dr. Jonathan Alpert, of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, told the Associated Press.

Hypochondriasis, now called illness anxiety disorder, is a rare condition where people can't shake their fears despite normal exams and lab tests. Some may change doctors repeatedly, while others avoid medical care.

People with the disorder are suffering and “it’s important to take it seriously and to treat it,” said Alpert, who was not involved in the new study. Treatment can involve cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, education and sometimes antidepressants.

In the study, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, addressed “a clear gap in the literature,” lead researcher David Mataix-Cols, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, told the AP.

“We got lucky,” he said, because the Swedish classification system for diseases has a separate code for hypochondriasis, allowing his team to analyze data on thousands of people over the course of 24 years.

Among those with the diagnosis, the risk of death by suicide was four times higher than it was among their peers who don't have the condition.

Overall death rates were also higher in the people with hypochondriasis, 8.5 versus 5.5 per 1,000 person years. People with the condition died younger than those without it, a mean age of 70 versus 75. Their risk of death from circulatory and respiratory diseases was also higher. The only exception to the rule was with cancer.

But telling patients they have the condition can be tough, because they feel they’re being accused of imagining sickness, Alpert noted.

“It takes a great deal of respect and sensitivity conveyed to patients that this itself is a kind of condition, that it has a name,” he said. “And, fortunately, there are good treatments.”

More information

Visit the Cleveland Clinic for more on hypochondriasis.

SOURCE: JAMA Psychiatry, Dec. 13, 2023; Associated Press