Montreal Gazette

The `paradoxica­l' prophets

- KYLE MELNICK The Washington Post

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 per cent more likely than people without the disorder to die of dozens of conditions, especially heart, blood and lung diseases, as well as death by suicide.

“It's kind of a paradoxica­l finding, isn't it?” researcher David Mataix-cols said. “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 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 anxiety.

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

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. 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.

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

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