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Those Who Fear Illness Die Earlier

FILE - A hospital exam room is seen in Alabama on Thursday, July 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
FILE - A hospital exam room is seen in Alabama on Thursday, July 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
Those Who Fear Illness Die Earlier
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A large Swedish study has found an unexpected finding about people diagnosed with extreme fear of serious illness. It found they are more likely to die earlier than people who are not as concerned about their health.

Hypochondriasis, now called illness anxiety disorder, is a rare condition with symptoms that go beyond average health concerns. People with the disorder are unable to lose their fears despite normal doctor visits and lab tests. Some may change doctors repeatedly. Others may avoid medical care.

Dr. Jonathan E. Alpert of Montefiore Medical Center in New York said, “Many of us are mild hypochondriacs.” But he added there are also people on the extreme side of it who are always worrying and thinking about whether they have a serious illness.

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 include behavioral therapy, calming methods, education, and sometimes mental health medication.

The researchers have found that people with the condition have an increased risk of death from both natural and unnatural causes, including suicide. Continuing stress and its effects on the body could explain some of the differences, the writers said. The study was published recently in JAMA Psychiatry.

David Mataix-Cols of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden led the research. “We got lucky,” he said, because the Swedish system for organizing disease has a separate entry for hypochondriasis. That permitted research on thousands of people over 24 years, from 1997 to 2020.

Older research had suggested the risk of suicide might be lower for people with the condition. Mataix-Cols said their research found that statement was incorrect. In the study, the risk of suicide death was four times higher for people with the condition.

They looked at 4,100 people with hypochondriasis and matched them with 41,000 people similar in age, sex, and where they lived. They used a measurement called person years, which measures the number of people and how long they were followed.

Overall death rates were higher in the people with hypochondriasis, 8.5 instead of 5.5 per 1,000 person years. People with the condition died younger than the others, with a mean age of 70 instead of 75. The risk of death from diseases related to body systems, such as breathing and eating, was higher. The risk of death from cancer, however, was about the same.

Alpert leads the American Psychiatric Association’s group on research. He said more care is needed when suggesting a patient to mental health professionals. Patients can become angry because they feel they are being accused of imagining symptoms.

Alpert added, “… fortunately, there are good treatments.”

I’m Gregory Stachel.

Carla K. Johnson reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

symptom n. a change in the body or mind which indicates that a disease is present

therapy n. the treatment of physical or mental illnesses

stress n. a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life or work

match v. to compare (something) with something else

mean n. average

fortunately adv. used to say that something good or lucky has happened