Anxiety around illness in childhood and adolescence can become chronic

  • Health anxiety is when we worry excessively about our health  
  • When children and adolescents have health anxiety, it may grow into a serious problem in adulthood
  • Early intervention is needed to prevent it from becoming a permanent problem

When children and teenagers have health anxiety, it can grow to be a permanent condition if it's not corrected, a study has found.

According to research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, health anxiety at a young age can have serious personal and socio-economic consequences in adulthood. 

Defining health anxiety

The study authors define severe health anxiety as "excessive and impairing worry and preoccupation with health issues that can cause increased and unnecessary medical examinations".

The Danish researchers assessed 1 278 children and teenagers at ages 11 and 16 years from May 2011 to October 2012, and August 2016 to November 2017.

At age 11, health anxiety was measured by a questionnaire that focused on three factors: fears, help-seeking behaviour, and impact of symptoms. There were 21 questions. The participants were scored using a 3-point Likert scale, with one indicating "never", two "sometimes", and three "a lot of the time".

When they reached 16 years, health anxiety questions included the presence of illness-related ruminations, which is regarded as an important feature of health anxiety. The presence of physical symptoms, emotional disorders and chronic illness were included at the baseline as study variables.

The results of health anxiety

The study's findings show that most of the children with significant amounts of health anxiety at age 11 experienced decreasing symptoms as they grew older. However, about 1.3% of the group retained persistent and significant health anxiety up to the age of 16. Health anxiety at age 16 was associated with increased healthcare costs during the follow-up.

"In addition to having many symptoms of health anxiety, this group also used two to three times as many resources at general practitioners and medical specialists, compared to the young people who only had a few symptoms of health anxiety.

"This finding may be worrying, as this type of disease- and contact behaviour may actually perpetuate the young persons' health anxiety, in so far as the behaviour can only briefly alleviate the health worries they have, but doesn't solve their underlying problems with anxiety," said the study author Dr Martin Rimvall, in a press statement. 

"These findings provide potential means of early identification and of therapeutic levers. Further intervention development and evaluation are needed," the paper states.

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