Woah, Can Anxiety Increase Your Risk of Cancer?
A new study suggests the two conditions may be linked, but only for a specific group of people.
It's no surprise that both stress and anxiety can have lasting negative effects on your overall health over time, causing everything from an increased heart attack risk to gastrointestinal issues. (FYI: This Is Why the News Makes You So Anxious.)
And not only is anxiety incredibly difficult to deal with, but it's also extremely common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1 percent of Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. What's more, women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience anxiety over the course of their lives-as if dealing with periods, pregnancy, and fluctuating hormones weren't hard enough, right? Now, a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge says anxiety could cause another really major health concern: cancer.
In the study, researchers focused on people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is characterized by excessive worry most days of the week for more than six months, as well as physical symptoms like restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep problems. The study notes that while previous research has examined whether or not anxiety is related to early death from major diseases (which includes cancer), the results haven't been consistent. (Here's Why You Should Stop Saying You Have Anxiety If You Really Don't.)
To get a closer look, researchers looked at data on patients with GAD who also died from cancer, which was gathered as part of a previous study. They found out that men with anxiety had double the risk of eventually dying from cancer. Strangely, the same correlation did not exist for women in their set of data, though researchers suggest further testing to confirm that holds up.
"We can't say that one causes the other," said lead researcher Olivia Remes at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress (ECNP). "It is possible that men with anxiety have lifestyles or other risk factors that increase cancer risk that we did not account for completely." Remes also spoke out about the need for people in power-researchers, government officials, and doctors-to pay more attention to anxiety disorders. "A large number of people are affected by anxiety, and its potential effects on health are substantial," she said. "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." (Related: This Weird Test Could Predict Anxiety and Depression Before You Show Symptoms.)
David Nutt, a professor at Imperial College who has also ran a U.K. clinic specializing in anxiety disorder, said the results did not surprise him. "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."
So while the standout results of this study mainly pertain to men, it's undoubtedly true that anxiety (and other mental health disorders, for that matter) need to be taken seriously as general physical health problems, too. And if you're concerned about this link between anxiety and cancer, understand that the study authors know there might be other lifestyle factors involved, since people who are super anxious are more likely to self-medicate with substances that can also contribute to cancer risk (see: cigarettes and alcohol). It's also important to remember that this particular research focuses only on GAD, so there's no immediate cause for concern if you have a different form of anxiety (like night anxiety or social anxiety). Sure, more research is definitely needed, but this study is a step in the right direction toward figuring out the link between stress, anxiety, and illness.