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    HomeHealthStudy: Hypochondriacs face heightened risk of dying from illness

    Study: Hypochondriacs face heightened risk of dying from illness

    Two Swedish people who were examined in a recent study had similar backgrounds: They were born in the same year and lived in the same county. But one of them — a diagnosed hypochondriac — was much more likely to die of a serious illness.

    Swedish researchers studied people with and without hypochondriasis — also known as illness anxiety disorder — a diagnosis given to people who are paranoid about being or becoming sick.

    The study, published this month in the JAMA Psychiatry journal, found that people diagnosed with hypochondriasis were 84 percent more likely than people without the disorder to die of dozens of conditions, especially heart, blood and lung diseases, as well as suicide.

    “It’s kind of a paradoxical finding, isn’t it?” researcher David Mataix-Cols told The Washington Post. “They worry so much about health and death, and then they end up having a higher risk of death anyway.”

    Previous research has found that people diagnosed with mental disorders are more likely to die at a younger age than those without the disorders. Mataix-Cols said he had wondered if that would also be the case for hypochondriacs, prompting his research.

    Mataix-Cols, 52, said many hypochondriacs remain paranoid even if doctors assure them they’re healthy. Searching for information about their symptoms on the internet can also worsen patients’ anxiety.

    “They experience a lot of suffering and hopelessness,” said Mataix-Cols, a neuroscience and psychiatry professor at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet.

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    About a year ago, researchers began gathering data from Swedish census and health databases from between 1997 to 2020. They identified 4,129 people who were diagnosed with hypochondriasis and compared each person against a group of 10 people who didn’t have hypochondriasis but had the same sex, birth year and county of residence. Researchers also considered marriage status, education level and family income.

    Over roughly nine months of observation, 268 hypochondriacs and 1,761 people without hypochondriasis died. The hypochondriacs died about five years younger on average than those without hypochondriasis.

    Researchers also found that hypochondriasis can impact quality of life; people without hypochondriasis were more likely to be educated, married and make more money than hypochondriacs.

    Hypochondriasis is underdiagnosed, Mataix-Cols said, so the risks of death could be even higher when accounting for undiagnosed cases.

    “There’s a tendency to perhaps debase their worries about their health as being made-up,” Mataix-Cols said.

    Mataix-Cols said he has a few theories about the findings. Hypochondriacs’ lives might be shorter because of chronic stress, which might also cause them to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. He said some patients might avoid visiting doctors out of fear that they’ll be diagnosed with a serious illness.

    Mataix-Cols hopes to learn more about hypochondriasis, such as how the disorder impacts patients’ abilities to pursue education and careers. For now, he said that more attention and resources should go into caring for people with hypochondriasis, which can be treated through cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medication.

    “We have good treatments,” Mataix-Cols said, “and most people don’t get them.”

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