Islamabad-A new research indicates that health anxiety might increase the risk of heart disease. Researchers examined the link between health anxiety and heart disease. The long-term study followed participants over a period of 12 years, and it was collaboration between the National Health Screening Service, and local health services.  During follow-up, twice as many participants with health anxiety developed heart disease, compared with those who did not report any anxiety.  Around 6.1 per cent of health anxiety cases developed ischemic heart disease (IHD), compared with 3 per cent of non-cases.  Because participants had been enrolled in a nationwide research project monitoring heart disease, their heart health was monitored extensively. The national program, entitled as ‘Cardiovascular diseases in Norway’, was carried out between 1994-2009, so the study could track participants using national hospital data and death certificates up to 2009.

After adjustments for established cardiovascular risk factors, researchers found a 73 per cent increased risk of developing IHD among cases with health anxiety.

Even considering established risk factors for IHD, such as smoking, high cholesterol, and education, health anxiety was a high risk factor for IHD.

The risk of IHD also increased proportionally with the level of reported anxiety; the stronger the symptoms of health anxiety, the higher the risk of IHD.

Caveats to the results of the study include the fact that this is an observational study, telling us little about the cause-and-effect relation between anxiety and IHD.

Also, health anxiety is often associated with other mental health issues, such as general anxiety and depression, so the different types of anxiety and ways in which they increase the risk of heart disease can be difficult to differentiate.

“Our 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,” the researchers write.

On the contrary, keeping the body in a constant state of alert might further increase the risk of heart-related incidents.

This puts both patients with anxiety and doctors in a difficult position. Telling an anxious patient that their anxiety is not a symptom of heart disease might help, but on the other hand, informing them that health anxiety might induce heart disease over time could cause them even more anxiety.

The researchers said, “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].”

The findings “Underline the importance of proper diagnosis and treatment of health anxiety,” the team adds.

The authors concluded, “This finding might encourage patients to seek treatment for health anxiety and to trust their heart.”