Researchers have discovered an interesting paradox about people with hypochondriasis, an anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear of illnesses. People with hypochondriasis are at greater risk of death from all causes, a study has revealed.

Health anxiety, or hypochondriasis, is an extremely rare anxiety disorder that causes unrealistic fear in people about illnesses. People with the condition tend to believe that they have a serious medical condition and often misinterpret normal bodily functions as signs of severe illness.

In the latest study, published in Jama Network, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, compared 4,129 people diagnosed with hypochondriasis to 41,290 without the condition. They found that people with health anxiety had a high risk of death from natural and unnatural causes. Their risk of death from suicide was four times higher when compared to others.

"This cohort study suggests that individuals with hypochondriasis have an increased risk of death from both natural and unnatural causes, particularly suicide, compared with individuals from the general population without hypochondriasis," the researchers wrote.

People with hypochondriasis are at higher risk of psychiatric illnesses, primarily anxiety-related and depressive disorders. The study revealed that 85.7% of them received at least a diagnosis of psychiatric disorder during their lifetime, while only 19.9% of people without the condition had the same.

In people with hypochondriasis, the death rates were higher (8.5 per 1,000 compared to 5.5 in others), and their average age of mortality was 70, around five years less than the others. The risk of death from circulatory and respiratory diseases was also higher, except for the risk of death from cancer.

"Despite their pervasive fears of illness and death and frequent medical consultations, individuals with hypochondriasis have an increased risk of death, both from natural and unnatural causes, compared to individuals from the general population," said David Mataix-Cols, a lead researcher of the study.

"Superficially, one might think that because they frequently consult with doctors, individuals with hypochondriasis may have a lower risk of death. However, clinicians working with this patient group know that many individuals experience considerable suffering and hopelessness, which could explain the elevated risk of suicide we describe in the paper," Mataix-Cols said.

According to him, most of the deaths among people with hypochondriasis are preventable, suggesting the need for improved detection and evidence-based treatment for the condition.

Here are some of the signs of hypochondriasis:

  • Preoccupied with thoughts of getting a serious disease
  • Constantly reading or talking about health, possible illnesses and symptoms
  • Worried about minor symptoms and exaggerating their severity
  • Avoiding people and activities fearing catching infections
  • Frequent visits to the doctor to check health status or complete avoidance fearing diagnosis