Surprising Finding: Study Ties Hypochondria to Early Death

2 min read

Dec. 26, 2023 – People with an extreme fear of illness and death may be at heightened risk of their worst fears coming true. 

A new study of people in Sweden who were diagnosed with hypochondria found that they had an 84% increased risk of early death and lived about 5 fewer years than people without the disorder.

The medical name for hypochondria is illness anxiety disorder, and it’s considered a psychiatric condition. The primary symptom is excessive worry about becoming seriously ill. Other symptoms include worrying that normal body sensations – such as a noisy stomach or a minor skin irritation – are signs of serious illness. And people with the disorder also find little or no reassurance from medical test results or from visiting a medical professional.

For the study, researchers analyzed data for more than 4,000 people living in Sweden who were diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder between 1997 and 2020. The researchers compared people with the disorder to others who had similar demographics, such as age and gender, and lived in the same county, but who did not have hypochondria. The findings were published this month in JAMA Psychiatry and showed that people with hypochondria were more likely to die of natural or of unnatural causes.

People with hypochondria were significantly more likely to die early due to all natural causes, except cancer, compared to the non-hypochondriac group. When the researchers looked at unnatural causes of death, again the people with hypochondria were more likely to have all types of unnatural causes of death at an earlier age. People with hypochondria were over four times more likely to die of suicide, which accounted for most of the increased risk due to unnatural causes, the researchers wrote.

The people with hypochondria ranged from 26 to 46 years old at diagnosis. About 57% of people in the study were women. About 86% of people in the hypochondria group had at least one other psychiatric disorder – usually anxiety or depression – compared to about 20% of people in the study who didn’t have hypochondria.

Previous research has shown that people with mental illness typically have a higher risk of other health problems. But this latest analysis suggested that hypochondria could not entirely explain the increased risk, since the researchers compared the hypochondria group to others who had different psychiatric conditions.

The researchers called for more efforts to diagnose and treat illness anxiety disorder.

“In this study, most deaths could be classified as potentially preventable,” the authors wrote. “Dismissing these individuals’ somatic symptoms as imaginary may have dire consequences. More should be done to reduce stigma and improve detection, diagnosis, and appropriate integrated (i.e., psychiatric and somatic) care for these individuals.”