They suggest anxious men may be more likely to ‘self-medicate’ their anxiety by drinking and smoking more than women, both factors that increase the likelihood of getting cancer.
Men who suffer from severe anxiety are twice as likely to die from cancer than men who do not, a study has found. Stock image
Women may also be quicker at going to the doctor – allowing the cancer to be detected earlier, making it easier to treat.
A study of 15,938 Britons looked at those who had also been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. The disorder is characterised by excessive, uncontrollable worry about many areas of life, the researchers said.
Symptoms can include muscle tension, insomnia, an inability to concentrate and restlessness. A total of 126 men (1.8 per cent in the study) and 215 women (2.4 per cent) were found to have the disorder in the study.
Over a 15 year follow-up period, they found the men with GAD were twice as likely to die of cancer than men who were not affected by anxiety. There was no greater likelihood for anxious women to die of cancer, the study funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK found.
Olivia Remes, a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge presented her findings to the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Vienna.
She said: ‘In the past there have been inconclusive studies of the relationship between cancer and anxiety. However our study is the largest one to look at this relationship. We found that men with generalised anxiety disorder are over twice as likely to die of cancer as men without this condition. This holds true even after taking account of a range of additional factors, such as age, major chronic diseases, serious mental illnesses, smoking, alcohol, physical activity, and medications.
‘Women did not show this association between anxiety and cancer.’
She added: ‘The work shows that anxiety is associated with cancer deaths in men.
‘We can’t say that one causes the other; it is possible that men with anxiety have lifestyles or other risk factors that increase cancer risk that we did not account for completely however this association does raise questions, and society may need to consider anxiety as a warning signal for poor health.’
She continued: ‘Researchers, policy makers and clinicians don’t give enough importance to anxiety, and this needs to change.
‘A large number of people are affected by anxiety and its potential effects on health are substantial.
‘With this study we show that anxiety is more than just a personality trait, it is a disorder that may be associated with risk of death from conditions such as cancer.’
Her findings were supported by Professor David Nutt of Imperial College, the former adviser on drugs to the government.
Professor Nutt, a former president of the ECNP, said: ‘As a psychiatrist who used to run one of the very few clinics in the UK specialised in the treatment of people with severe anxiety disorders these results do not surprise me.
‘The intense distress that these people suffer often on a daily basis is usually associated with a great deal of bodily stress, that is bound to have a major impact on many physiological processes including immune supervision of cancerous cells.
‘As the authors point out other factors such as self-medication with tobacco and alcohol are also likely to be involved. I fully support the authors’ statement that much more information and investment need to be given to the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders’.