Bad news for hypochondriacs. New research from a Norwegian Hordaland Health Study shows that people with severe health anxiety are twice as likely to develop chest pain or have a heart attack. They also have a 70 percent increased risk of heart disease.
The study was published in the journal BMJ Open, and involved over 7,000 people born between 1953 and 1957. After completing questionnaires about their health and lifestyle, levels of anxiety were assessed by researchers after going through a physical checkup: blood tests, weight, height and blood pressure. Unsurprisingly, the proportion of those succumbing to heart disease was twice as high with those who suffered from health anxiety than those who didn’t.
"People with high levels of health anxiety have about a 70 percent increased risk of heart disease, after taking into account other known risk factors," lead researcher Dr. Line Eden Berge said. She adds the increased risk might also be caused by “physiological effects of the anxiety itself” and that this new evidence of “negative consequences over time emphasizes proper diagnosis and treatment of health anxiety.”
As noted in the study’s press release, this was an observational study so no firm conclusion can be drawn about cause and effect. Research shows that health anxiety often exists beside other mental health issues, such as general anxiety and depression. This makes it hard to differentiate — and harder to prescribe.
As Dr. Stacey Rosen, vice president for Women’s Health at Northwell Health’s Katz Institute for Women’s Health, said to Health Day, the “relationship between behavioral health issues and cardiac health is a critical part of everything we do for cardiac patients."
Having health anxiety is not good for long-term health, but as Rosen suggests, the first step in getting better is to find a doctor you trust, and whose main concern is to get you better. The worst thing you can do is diagnose yourself through unreliable sources.
Rosen recommends the U.S. National Institutes of Health as a credible site for information, but it might not be enough. Because health anxiety is mental (rather than physical), doctors should take it upon themselves to refer people to mental health professionals.
"When most doctors encounter someone who they think is a hypochondriac, they kind of reassure them that it's nothing, you'll be fine, it's just in your head,” added Dr. Matthew Lorber, acting director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital. "This is a problematic approach, because if you don't actually treat the anxiety, then they are going to be at risk for serious heart disease… we now call this problem ‘illness anxiety disorder.’”
While worrying about your health may not directly cause heart issues, the study shows a serious association. Because of this, health anxiety ought to be taken seriously and treated properly. After all, how we think often becomes how we feel.