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Scared Sick: Why Hypochondriacs Face Higher Risk of Death

Study Reveals Ironic Link Between Hypochondriacs and Death
Source: MEGA

People who live in fear that they have a serious illness are prone to die sooner than those who don't.

Dec. 19 2023, Published 3:40 p.m. ET

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A recent study indicates that individuals diagnosed with an intense fear of severe illness tend to have shorter lifespans compared to those without the condition.

This paradox, previously known as hypochondriasis and now labeled illness anxiety disorder, is considered a rare affliction.

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A new study published by the JAMA Network journal reveals that individuals grappling with illness anxiety disorder face a heightened risk of mortality due to both natural and unnatural causes, particularly suicide.

The study, conducted in Sweden, involved 4,129 individuals diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder, compared to 41,290 individuals without the condition, matched for age, residence and gender.

The diagnoses spanned from 1997 to 2020, with the analysis conducted in the current year.

Utilizing person-years as a metric to account for the number of people and the duration of tracking, the researchers found that individuals with illness anxiety disorder had overall higher death rates, with an average age of death at 70 compared to 75 for those without the condition, according to JAMA Network.

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The study's authors wrote, "The minimally adjusted risk estimates showed that individuals with hypochondriasis had an 84% higher risk of all-cause mortality during the follow-up compared with individuals without hypochondriasis."

Contrary to earlier suggestions that the risk of suicide might be lower for individuals with illness anxiety disorder, the study, led by David Mataix-Cols of the Karolinska Institute, revealed an increase in the risk of suicide death by four times among diagnosed individuals.

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The authors also proposed that chronic stress and its physiological effects could explain the elevated death rates associated with illness anxiety disorder.

While the risk of death from cancer was comparable between the two groups, individuals with the diagnosis faced higher mortality rates from circulatory and respiratory diseases, according to JAMA Network.

The history of illness anxiety disorder dates back to 1621, described by physician Robert Burton as "windy, hypochondriacal melancholy." It was considered a physical disorder for 259 years until George Beard classified it in the 1880s as "a definite delusion of physical disease," according to The Lancet.

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Today, illness anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry about being or becoming seriously ill, even in the absence of physical symptoms.

Dr. Jonathan E. Alpert of Montefiore Medical Center notes that while many people exhibit mild hypochondriac tendencies, some individuals live in a perpetual state of anxiety and rumination about severe illness, according to the Associated Press.

The recommended approach for treating this disorder, according to the Cleveland Clinic, involves a combination of medication and cognitive behavior therapy.

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