We see lots of research papers and study reports here at MHM Towers.
Some offer very compelling evidence of the impact of a new treatment or the discovery of some factor that contributes toward this or that condition.
Others quantify a known effect or measure the efficacy of particular action in response to a defined set of circumstances.
Many are simply risk assessments identifying the potential dangers of certain behaviours or lifestyles.
Usually there is a reasoned logic to follow, a methodology or causal relationship suggested by previous research and experience as in ‘we expected this to have that effect, we just didn’t know by how much?”.
My response to such reports usually ranges along a spectrum of muted physical reactions; a satisfied nod, a shrug, the occasional raised eyebrow of intrigue or sneer of derision.
And then there is a rare piece of research like the one from International Longevity Centre UK (ILC-UK) at University College London which made my jaw drop, eyes roll and head shake all at the same time.
Not the most attractive sight to greet Mrs B over the breakfast table but then, after reading the report herself, she felt impelled to augment my impromptu head gymnastics with a few gyratory moves of her own.
The central claim was, on the face of it, outrageous; that feeling younger actually makes you live longer.
Even worse, feeling old makes you die earlier.
The methodology was simple enough, in 2004 – 2005 the researchers asked 6,489 people over the age of 52 one, simple question; “how old do you feel you are?”
The respondent was expected to give a specific age which was then recorded.
The actual average age of the overall test group was 65.8; the average age ‘felt’ by the group was 56.8.
Nearly 70% (69.6%) of the respondents said that they felt three or more years younger than their actual age, just over a quarter (25.6%) said they felt more or less the age they were and a small group (4.8%) felt a year or more older than their chronological age.
The test subjects were then classified into these three groups.
Over the next eight years or so, the mortality rate of the entire base was monitored and some startling differences were noted.
In the ‘feel younger’ group the mortality rate was 14.3%, in the ‘about right’ group it was 18.5% and among the ‘feel older’ section it was 24.6%.
Even after adjusting the figures for statistical anomalies and natural covariates (higher risk participants, uneven spread of risk factors etc.) and even excluding all deaths in the first twelve months in case the respondents answered under the influence of some sense or knowledge of impending medical catastrophe, the differentials stayed the same.
The mortality rate remained 41% higher among those who articulated a feeling of being older than those who said they felt younger.
They also found a correlation between the incidences of death from heart disease, being much higher in the ‘feel older’ age group, though no other causes of death showed any particular statistical bias.
So what does this mean?
To the researchers it suggests that many of us have an inherent awareness of how unhealthy we are and that this type of question may be a useful diagnostic tool for GP’s when identifying patients at risk.
Theoretically a patient is much more likely to give an honest appraisal of how old (i.e. how healthy) they feel then admit to any one of a number of negative behaviours (smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet etc.) that would help a GP identify risk at the earliest possible stage.
As I thought this through the whole idea began to make a certain amount of sense and I feel the effort should be applauded.
Perhaps, though, even this question is a little obtuse for diagnostic purposes.
What if they asked; “what age do you think you will live to?”
I mean I ‘feel’ like a teenager most of the time, mainly because I never really bought into the whole being a grown up idea, but I really don’t expect to reach far beyond my 60s.
Mrs B might be at the other end of the scale; never smoked, eats her fruit and veg religiously and tops up her vitamins and minerals as necessary.
But when I asked her how old she felt she replied with a sigh, “depends what I see in the bathroom mirror in the morning, some days I feel like a hundred…”
That would have skewed the research somewhat.
To the media, of course, this study seemed like a Jedi mind trick by which, if you could get in touch with your feelings, you could extend your life expectancy.
“Fountain of youth lies in your own mind” said one, quite lyrically compared to the more prosaic “Feeling older may cause death faster” or the charmingly disarming “People who feel younger at heart live longer”.
My personal favourite though, for its tortuous grammar alone, is “Feeling young may be more important than being so”; if ever one of my colleagues had totally missed the point…
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