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Psychological distress linked to increased risk of death from some cancers

Higher levels of anxiety and depression may be associated with an increased risk of death from certain cancers, new study results suggest. 

Higher levels of anxiety and depression may be associated with an increased risk of death from certain cancers, new study results suggest. 


Mortality rates in the most distressed group were consistently high for some cancers. Picture: iStock 

Previous research has suggested a link between psychological distress and increased rates of cardiovascular disease, but associations with different types of cancer are either unclear or untested.

To determine whether psychological distress is a potential predictor of site specific cancer mortality, the researchers analysed data from 16 studies, 13 from England and three from Scotland. 

All the studies started between 1994 and 2008, and involved a total of 163, 363 men and women who were free from cancer at the start of the study. 

Predictive capacity

Psychological distress scores were measured using general health questionnaires, and participants were monitored for nine and a half years. During this time, there were 4,353 deaths from cancer. 

After taking into account several factors which could have influenced the results – including age, sex, smoking, alcohol intake and socioeconomic status – the researchers said that compared with the least distressed group, mortality rates in the most distressed group were consistently high for cancers of the bowel, prostate, pancreas and oesophagus, and for leukaemia. 

‘Our findings contribute to the evidence that poor mental health might have some predictive capacity for certain physical diseases. But we are a long way off from knowing if these relationships are truly causal,’ said lead study author David Batty.


Batty GD et al (2017) Psychological distress in relation to site specific cancer mortality: pooling of unpublished data from 16 prospective cohort studies. BMJ. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j108 

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