'Worried well' may be at greater risk of heart disease'

4 November 2016

People who worry needlessly about their own health could be increasing their chances of genuine health problems later down the line, a new study has shown.

A long-term collaborative project between the University of Bergen and Norway's National Health Screening Service has indicated that people who make themselves anxious with concerns they may have or might develop a serious illness - a group known as the "worried well" - might be more susceptible to heart disease due to the fact their bodies are in a permanent state of high alert.

Examining data from 7,052 participants of the Norwegian Hordaland Health Study, the researchers looked at responses to two questionnaires about the patients' health, lifestyle and educational attainment, as well as the results of physical check-ups consisting of blood tests, weight, height and blood pressure measurements between 1997 and 1999.

In total, 234 members within the sample group experienced an ischaemic event such as a heart attack or a bout of acute angina during the monitoring period, with the average time to the first incident being just over seven years. Around six per cent of those who displayed signs of health anxiety suffered some kind of heart problem, compared to only three per cent of those who were not unduly anxious about their health.

When all factors were taken into account, those with health anxiety at the start of the study were shown to be 73 per cent more likely to develop heart disease than those who did not share this state of mind.

The researchers said their study "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", noting that it may instead be having the precise opposite effect.

They added: "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."

It is well-established that anxiety is a quantifiable risk factor for heart disease, so it would follow that health anxiety - a state of mind characterised by a persistent preoccupation with developing a serious illness and regular consultation with medical services prompted by misattributed bodily symptoms - would be no exception to this.

However, the researchers noted that the evidence in this research was not enough to prove cause and effect, noting that health anxiety often occurs alongside other mental health issues, such as general anxiety and depression. As such, further studies will be needed to investigate the link further.

Nevertheless, the report concluded that proper diagnosis and treatment of health anxiety needs to be considered an important priority to make sure that any potential heart disease danger affecting the "worried well" is addressed in a timely and effective manner.

Posted by Philip Briggs

 


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