A major research study from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) and the University of Cambridge reported on its findings earlier this week. The study involved tracking over 16000 Britons over a period of 15 years and found that men who suffered from anxiety were more at risk of dying from cancer as those men who don’t suffer from anxiety. It also found that the correlation held true regardless of other risk factors to cancer such as the levels of alcohol consumption, smoking and the rate of physical activity. There were a few standout points from the study. One of which was that the association was not shared by women.
Why are men more likely to suffer greater physical risk from chronic anxiety?
The results of this new study lend another piece of evidence that links chronic fretfulness to sickness and death in males. However, the evidence still leave doubts over why this should be. An obvious, and perhaps lazy, explanation might be that men tend to smoke and drink more alcohol and don’t look after themselves as well as women. However, after researchers compensated for those factors, the strong association remained.
There are other studies that could add weight to the recent study to show the greater risk of physical illness from chronic anxiety (thanks to a Times2 article on the subject by John Naish).
A Finnish study in 2014, that tracked middle aged men for over 23 years, found that men who scored highly for anxiety were more vulnerable to the risk of death from all causes, not just from cancer.
A recent University of Edinburgh study found that those with ‘subclinical’ depression or anxiety had a 29 per cent increased risk of dying from heart disease and stroke over a decade than those who did not. ‘Subclinical’ is a term used to define a scenario whereby sufferers thought it unworthy of medical attention. It must be said that Dr Tom Russ, who led the study, is not saying that anxiety actually causes illness. His point is that the results of the study may show an association but the proof for causation might not be present. For instance, it could be that individuals with undiagnosed cancers suffer from pains that cause anxiety, although that doesn’t appear to explain it fully.
It could be that chronic anxiety in men causes physical reactions that ignite the body’s defences, thereby sparking long-term inflammation that in turn may cause a wide range of illnesses such as cancer. For example, psychiatrists at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam reported that men who develop anxiety disorders in adult life show significantly raised levels of inflammatory chemicals in their bloodstream, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), a phenomenon not occurring with women. CRP is not in itself necessarily harmful, as it can play a very useful role in the immune system such as protecting against the threat of infections, but can be dangerous if they persist at chronic levels. In particular, they are linked to a raised risk of developing cancers, heart disease and even diabetes. The production of CRP can also occur from sleep disturbance associated with anxiety.
Furthermore, psychiatrists at the Emory University School of Medicine reported that chronically raised levels of inflammatory chemicals can cause the brain’s centres, that initiate our fight-or-flight response, to become overactive (an area of our brain called the hypothalamus).
“Gut fear”, that wrenching physical symptom of anxiety when your body is telling you to watch out because there is danger ahead, seems to have a physical affect on the brain. Evidence points to how inflamed stomachs damage our mental states, through neurological links such as the vagus nerve, which links our gut and brain, and by changing the balance of the billions of bacteria that thrive in our guts. For a full explanation on the physical symptoms of anxiety see the Anxiety UK website.
Scientists at the University of Exeter found that when people with depression, a common result of chronic anxiety, were given drugs to block the effect of their bodies’ inflammatory chemicals, their symptoms were mildly alleviated.
Such evidence clearly demonstrates the need for men to take seriously the deadly impact of anxiety. Therapy can be a lifesaver for men but they invariably only attend when things are at a crisis point in their lives. We all need to address why men find it so difficult to reach out for support and there are no easy answers.
For more information on what works for the treatment of anxiety see my most recent article on Manxiety: The Importance of Men addressing their anxiety.
The acute mental health needs of men
Engage with the power of imagination to ease anxiety
Help your brain to reduce anxiety
Self discipline exercises that will ease your anxiety
Anxiety UK – for information on symptoms