Cancer-related Mortality More Than Twice as Likely in Men with Anxiety

The largest study to examine the relationship between anxiety and cancer death sheds light on the importance of taking anxiety seriously.

A new study revealed that men with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are more than twice as likely to die from cancer than men without the mental disorder.

GAD is a common mental health issue that affects about 5% of the adult population. Although prior studies have examined whether anxiety was associated with early death from major causes of the disease, the findings have been inconclusive.

In a new study, researchers used data from 15,938 patients who participated in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer-Norfolk study. They were able to link both men and women with GAD between the periods of 1996 to 2000 to death records over the subsequent 15 years.

The results of the study showed that 126 of 7139 men, and 215 of 8799 women had GAD. Over a period of 15 years, 796 men and 648 women died from cancer.

Over the 15-year follow-up period, researchers found that men with GAD were twice as likely to die of cancer as men without GAD (Hazard Ratio, 2.14 [95% CI: 1.32, 3.46]). However, there was no association found between anxiety in women and increased cancer deaths (Hazard Ratio, 1.03 (95% CI: 0.60, 1.76)).

Even after researchers took factors such as age, smoking, alcohol, medications, physical activity, major chronic diseases, and serious mental illnesses, the results remained true.

“The work shows that anxiety is associated with cancer deaths in men,” said lead researcher Olivia Remes. “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 not raise questions, and society may need to consider anxiety as a warning signal for poor health. 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, but rather, it is a disorder that may be associated with risk of death from conditions, such as, cancer.”

The study, which was the largest to look at this relationship, was funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK. Remes received funding from the National Institute for Health Research.

“As a psychiatrist who used to run one of the very few clinics in the UK specialized in the treatment of people with severe anxiety disorders, these results do not surprise me,” commented David Nutt, former president of the ECNP. “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 more information and investment need to be given to the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders.”