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Hypochondriacs—Might They Live Longer?

How does constantly obsessing about your health affect your longevity?

Surely, we all know (or know of) a hypochondriac. And a cyberchondriac—a colloquial term for hypochondriacs perpetually scouring the Internet for diseases that might fit their worrisome symptoms—have become increasingly prominent.

But might there be some practical benefits to being hypervigilant about atypical or anomalous bodily sensations? That is, can one be super alert to possible aberrations potentially lethal to their health that would more than counterbalance the physical or psychological costs associated with such protracted and exaggerated anxiety?

Many writers have alluded to the circumstance that a hypochondriac’s (or cyberchondriac’s) acute attention to what’s going on in their bodies could lead them to see their doctor earlier—as well as more frequently. And that this extraordinary body awareness could optimize the chance that any number of possible diseases might be diagnosed at an earlier stage, thereby increasing the odds of successful treatment. By implication then, such early detection might also be expected to positively affect their life expectancy.

Nonetheless, the many claims advanced against the hypochondriac’s nervous preoccupation with their symptoms far outweigh any case that might be made on behalf of such pathological self-absorption. And virtually all of these arguments relate to the elevated stress levels involved in such prolonged mental and emotional anguishing.

Back in the 1970s, Han Selye, M.D., defined stress in terms of its cumulative “wear and tear” on your system. Almost a half-century has passed since his empirically derived viewpoint but, so far as I can determine, no researcher since has attempted to refute his perspective. In fact, many scientists have elaborated further on how, over time, stress takes a significant toll on your immune system.

So, ironically, your very ability to fight a disease is actually compromised by incessantly worrying about it. It might even be said that the more you obsess about having contracted a hazardous condition, the more likely you’ll end up with some condition (whether or not it’s the one you've been agonizing over). And it might be added that hypochondriacs can also “stress over their stress”—a most vicious cycle that, eventually, might even be fatal—as in, well, “stressing yourself to death.” (Talk about “wear and tear” on your system!)

Cortisol, an immune system suppressant manufactured by the body when it’s in fight-or-flight mode, is one of the most dangerous stress hormones. And when hypochondriacs just can’t stop stressing over perceived health threats, such cumulative cortisol production can be viewed as toxically overloading—or disrupting the normal functioning of—the body’s organs, glands, and systems.

Plus, hypochondriacs are typically on a medication regimen, that not only may they put their doctor(s) under considerable pressure to prescribe but, because the drugs may not really be indicated, can also put their health at further risk. It’s almost like unwittingly encouraging a premature death by opening up the possibility of major side effects and complications. So taking unnecessary medications can significantly add to the physical stress already imposed on their body by their compulsive worrying.

Given the profound effect that stress, particularly prolonged or chronic stress, can have on one’s body, how could hypochondriacs' overblown concerns about particular symptoms (which, by definition, are actually minor, inconsequential, or frivolous) not adversely affect their lifespan? How could all their obsessing not be detrimental when it typically leads not only to their taking needless medications but also to putting themselves through interminable (and at times invasive) diagnostic tests and procedures—which, it might be noted, they gladly subject themselves to, or even demand?

As an important caveat, it ought to be noted that genetics, too, plays a role in determining a person’s longevity. Nonetheless—and somewhat surprisingly—that role is substantially less than up until recently has generally been assumed. A heavily documented article on the subject concludes that “[identical] twin studies have estimated that approximately 20-30 percent of an individual’s lifespan is related to genetics; the rest is due to individual behaviors and environmental factors.” And the research I’ve personally undertaken definitely corroborates this verdict.

The one academic study that most closely applies to hypochondria—and its negative influence on one’s lifespan—comes from the University of Zurich. As discussed in The Daily Mail, journalist Fiona Macrae sums it up this way: “Scientists believe that hypochondriacs really may be destined for an early grave.” And I’d add that they may be so fated not because of their genes but because of the protracted and intense anxiety intrinsic to this disorder.

Here are some pivotal details of this recent study. Scrupulously controlling for as many variables as possible, this research team found that individuals who complained about their health were three times more likely to die in the next 30 years than those who perceived themselves as more able-bodied and hearty. In other words, the first group’s notions about their physical wellness alone—that is, independent of other factors, such as their health at the start of the study, their family life, whether or not they smoked, etc.—appeared to substantially affect their mortality.

The university’s investigators—utilizing information from the 1970s, which involved more than 8,000 men and women specifically asked how they’d describe their health, and then painstakingly analyzing subsequent death records and other data—concluded that (to put it a little differently) the worse a person estimated their health, the less likely they were to be alive 30 years later.

Macrae’s quotes from co-researcher Dr. David Fach are telling: “‘Our results indicate that people who rate their state of health as excellent have attributes [my emphasis] that improve and sustain their health. These [qualities] might include a positive attitude, an optimistic outlook and a fundamental level of satisfaction with one’s own life.’” Pointedly, Macrae adds here that earlier research has demonstrated that “pessimists are more likely to die young than their more optimistic counterparts.” (And it can hardly be contested that as a group hypochondriacs lean heavily toward pessimism.)

So this study provides yet more evidence that obsessing about the precariousness of one’s health can have precarious ramifications for—or maybe I should say, against—one’s health. Another irony here is that it’s sometimes been suggested that hypochondriacs torment themselves over body anomalies as a way of distracting themselves from other matters that might feel even more threatening to them. And unquestionably, so-called cyberchondriacs can easily push to the rear various personal, relational, or professional fears through tirelessly consulting the Web to research their supposed afflictions. (Not to mention exposing themselves to the innumerable TV programs, articles, and advertisements so frequently devoted to an enormous miscellany of illnesses and conditions, and their related symptomatology.)

Returning to Hans Selye, the more stress you inflict on yourself, the more wear and tear you’re subjecting your body to. And the more wear and tear, the sooner your organism—under such constant bombardment—will break down. So if habitually anguishing over your health is warrantlessly using up too much of your life’s mortal energy, the message should be clear:

Of course, pay attention to your symptoms, especially if they’re serious or you find them bewildering. But don’t give them sovereignty over you either. And if believing that you’re fundamentally healthy is too much of a “leap of faith” for you, despite all the assurances you’ve already received from your physician(s), then maybe your next trip shouldn’t be to a doctor... but to a therapist.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.