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Exaggerated Health Gripes Aren’t More Common Among Elderly, Study Finds

January 7, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite popular beliefs, exaggerated complaints about health are no more common among elderly people than the young, with elderly hypochondriacs generally the same individuals who were complainers in their youth, psychologists said Monday.

Overstated medical complaints appear to have nothing to do with age, said the experts, but the perception that the elderly are prone to be hypochondriacs results in doctors not taking legitimate health problems seriously.

In a report in the journal American Psychologist, Drs. Paul T. Costa Jr. and Robert R. McCrae said their 18-year study of 900 men aged 17 to 98 shows that people may report more medical problems because of their personality dispositions.

″The individual who makes excessive and exaggerated (medical) complaints in old age is probably the same person who has made them all of his or her life,″ said the experts from the Gerontology Research Center of the National Institute of Aging, in Baltimore.

The psychologists said overreporting of medical symptoms is related to neurotic behavior that does not increase with age.

The complainers, they said, have extremely high levels of neuroticism, the broad aspect of a normal personality that includes self-consciousness, vulnerability to stress and the inability to inhibit cravings. These same people also have tendencies to be anxious, hostile or depressed.

The researchers said tests that ask people about the kinds of physical symptoms they experience are more a measure of a person’s ″habitual pattern of describing disease″ than the presence of a particular ailment.

″Even within a population of ostensibly normal individuals, there is a clear pattern of association, with individuals high in neuroticism reporting two to three times as many symptoms as the best adjusted men,″ they wrote.

The scientists said elderly people do have legitimate ailments and account for a large proportion of total hospital days, but they said this chiefly is due to two percent of the elderly accounting for 20 percent of all the hospital days used by all the elderly.

Instead of the diffuse complaints typical of true hypochondriacs, they said, the elderly show rising numbers of complaints only in specific categories that are likely to be genuine, such as memory loss and heart disease.

″Given the incidence of many other diseases (among the elderly), it is remarkable that so little change is seen,″ they concluded.

The researchers added, ″We cannot claim that there are no hypochondriacs among the elderly, but we do argue that hypochondriasis is no more prevalent in older age groups than in any other age groups.″

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