By John Salak –
Maybe we should be careful about what we wish for—or at least what we worry about. Researchers in Sweden have found that extreme hypochondriacs tend to die earlier than people who worry less about what may ail them and are even less hypervigilant about their health.
The Swedish team working under the country’s Karolinska Institute certainly isn’t advocating a laissez-faire approach to personal healthcare. But they did find that individuals suffering from what is now called illness anxiety disorder, which means that they are unable to shake fears they are suffering from some malady despite normal physical exams and lab tests—don’t appear to be doing themselves any medical favors.
Not only is the disorder physically and mentally debilitating, it substantially increases the risk of suicide.
“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 E. Alpert of New York’s Montefiore Medical Center told US News & World Report. The disorder needs to be taken seriously and involves treatments that include therapy, relaxation techniques, education and even antidepressant medication, Alpert added.
The Karolinska study noted that people suffering from the disorder have an increased risk of death from both natural and unnatural causes, such as suicide. It is not entirely clear what’s driving the increased risk of death, but the team suggested exaggerated worries over potential illnesses might be generating chronic stress and undermining personal well-being.
The researchers hoped their analysis, which involved examining data for thousands of individuals over a 24-year period, would bridge a gap in previous research. Earlier studies had speculated that those with the disorder might have a lower suicide rate than others. The Karolinska team, led by Dr. David Mataix-Cols, didn’t buy that position.
Ultimately, the study revealed that the risk of suicide for those with the disorder was four times higher for people with the diagnosis than for others.
Overall death rates were not only higher for these individuals—8.5 versus 5.5 per 1,000 per year—but these people also tended to die younger than others. They perished at a mean age of 70 compared to 75 for others. Death from circulatory and respiratory diseases was relatively higher as well, although those with hypochondriasis fared about the same as non-worriers regarding cancer. More research is required into the causes, treatments and impacts of hypochondriasis, to help alleviate the burden these individuals are placing on healthcare providers.
Healthresearchfunding.org estimates that up to 20 percent of the general population suffers from the disorder, which corresponds to more than 50 million people in the U.S. alone.
While not all people dealing with the disorder seek medical help for their nonexistent illnesses, many do, which in turn puts an unnecessary strain on healthcare systems and staff. Education into the disorder’s impact and triggers is essential for combating the disease, along with psychotherapy because it deals with a cognitive mechanism that many believe is the disorder’s foundation.