People who needlessly worry that they have, or will develop, a serious illness may be boosting their risk of heart disease, a new study has suggested.
Anxiety is a known risk factor for heart disease and now researchers have said health anxiety (or hypochondria), where people believe they are going to develop a serious illness, seems to be no exception.
People who experience this type of anxiety, known as ‘the worried well’, should be taken seriously and treated properly, researchers said.
According to the NHS, people with health anxiety can fall into one of two extremes:
- Constantly seeking information and reassurance – for example, obsessively researching illnesses from the internet, booking frequent GP appointments, and having frequent tests that don’t find any problems.
- Avoidant behaviour – avoiding medical TV programmes, GP appointments and anything else that might trigger the anxiety, and avoiding activities such as exercise that are perceived to make the condition worse.
For the new study, researchers analysed data of more than 7,000 participants of the Norwegian Hordaland Health Study (HUSK), all of whom were born between 1953 and 1957.
Participants filled in two questionnaires about their health, lifestyle, and educational attainment. Levels of health anxiety were assessed using a validated scale called the Whiteley Index and, based on this, 710 people were considered to have health anxiety.
Participants’ heart health was also tracked throughout the study.
Researchers discovered that those who displayed health anxiety throughout the study were twice as likely to develop heart disease.
Additionally, those with health anxiety at the start of the study were 73% more likely to develop heart disease than those who weren’t in this state of mind.
They found that the higher the Whiteley Index score, the greater the risk of developing heart disease.
“[Our research] further indicates that characteristic behaviour among persons with health anxiety, such as monitoring and frequent check-ups of symptoms, does not reduce the risk of [coronary heart disease] events,” the study’s authors wrote.
If anything, they added, putting the body on a permanent state of high alert may have the opposite effect.
“These findings illustrate the dilemma for clinicians between reassuring the patient that current physical symptoms of anxiety do not represent heart disease, contrasted against the emerging knowledge on how anxiety, over time, may be causally associated with increased risk of [coronary artery disease],” they said, before concluding that the findings “underline the importance of proper diagnosis and treatment of health anxiety”.
Emily Reeve, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “It’s natural for people to worry if they feel they might be unwell. But anxiety and stress can trigger unhealthy habits, such as smoking or eating badly, which put you at greater risk of heart disease.
“While we don’t know if the ‘worried well’ are directly putting themselves at risk of a heart attack, it’s clear that reducing unnecessary anxiety can have health benefits. If you are experiencing health anxiety, speak to your doctor.”