Constant worrying might wreck more than just your mental health: people with anxiety are more likely to die from cancer, a new study presented at the annual European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress suggests.
After analysing data from more than 15,000 people, the researchers discovered that men with generalised anxiety disorder were more than twice as likely to die from cancer over the 15-year follow up period than those without the disorder.
The link persisted even after the researchers adjusted for other factors that could be raising cancer risk in that group – for example, that anxious people may not exercise as often or that they may have other medical conditions linked to cancer that might be making them anxious.
That means there’s probably something about continual anxiety itself that’s raising your cancer risk.
One possibility: persistent anxiety elevates your stress hormones, such as cortisol, says study author Olivia Remes.
That can hinder your cells’ ability to repair damaged DNA – giving cancerous cells the opportunity to form – as well as accelerate the growth of tumours and cancer-causing mutations, she says.
One important note: the study looked at men with generalised anxiety disorder, a mental condition that’s more serious than your garden-variety stress and nervousness.
The disorder is characterised by obsessive and uncontrollable worry, which causes trouble focusing and sleeping, says Remes.
More research needs to be done to determine whether treating anxiety actually reduces your cancer risk, says Remes. But the longer anxiety persists, the greater your cancer risk, she says. So it’s possible that treating it early might help.
If you’ve been plagued with worry that you just can’t turn off – or find that your anxiety stops you from doing everyday things like hanging out with friends or going to work – make an appointment with your doctor to talk about treatment options.
He or she may recommend cognitive behavioural therapy, anti-anxiety meds or a combination of both to help reduce your fretting, says Remes.