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December 26, 2023

A constant worry about being sick increases risk of death, study finds

Chronic stress may explain why hypochondriacs are more likely to die of various medical conditions despite the attention they devote to their health

Mental Health Anxiety
Worry Health Problems Andrea Piacquadio/

Excessively worrying about health problems puts people at greater risk of dying, according to a new study on the effects of hypochondriasis.

An unhealthy obsession with falling sick or developing adverse health conditions ironically makes people more likely to die than those who don't worry much about these scenarios, a new study found.

People with hypochondriasis are known for having excessive amounts of fear about their bodies, often despite the absence of any medical evidence of the problems that preoccupy them. The condition, also known as illness anxiety disorder, is considered rare.

But researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden say this type of obsession with illness is becoming more prevalent and is probably underdiagnosed. They wondered whether paranoia about physical decline has effects on the body similar to other mental illnesses, many of which increase the risk of dying early.

The study found that hypochondriacs were 84% more likely to die from a wide range of conditions – including heart disease, suicide and blood and lung diseases – than those without the disorder. The higher risk of death was comparable between men and women with hypochondriasis. 

Although some severe versions of the disorder lead people to avoid seeking medical attention, the researchers believe other causes likely better explain the increased risk of death. The effects of chronic stress could play a key role in making hypochondriacs more susceptible to disease as they age. Dysfunction of the immune system and chronic inflammation can result from stress and other lifestyle factors associated with it, like alcohol and substance use.

"It's kind of a paradoxical finding, isn't it?" David Mataix-Cols, one the authors of the study, told the Washington Post. "They worry so much about health and death, and then they end up having a higher risk of death anyway."

The study compared the long-term health outcomes of more than 4,000 people diagnosed with hypochondriasis to a larger sample of the general population to see whether their risk of death increased. Its findings suggest that the fears displayed by hypochondriacs should not be dismissed as imaginary because they can contribute to deteriorating health. The stigma around the condition needs to be challenged to improve detection and diagnosis, the study said.

Mataix-Cols said many hypochondriacs despair over doctors who minimize their concerns, and they often turn to the internet for information about symptoms. Although it may help them recognize and better understand different signs of disease, it also can increase their anxiety.

Hypochondriasis often is treated using cognitive behavioral therapy, sometimes with antidepressants to help limit obsession while healthier skills are developed to avoid catastrophic worrying.

The authors of the study said they hope increased detection of the condition and greater access to therapy and self-help resources will reduce the rates of death linked to being a hypochondriac.

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