Monday, January 4, 2010

If you look old - you probably are

The NZ Herald sideswipe last week reported on a fascinating study that looked at how old twins looked and showed that the twin that looked older more likely to die.

To me this makes intuitive sense. Your outside is a reflection on what is going on in the inside of the body. So if your insides are getting old and weary then your body is aged, thus you will look aged. .I personally think that this also extends to your eyes. I find eyes very telling, are they clear and bright or dull and can see if someone is sick by watching their eyes (both physically/emotional or spiritually) but this is off the topic!

Thanks to Sideswipe comments I was able to track down the scientific paper, (you can download it for free here if you are interested). There was some additional fascinating information...  The "average" of 10 faces is shown in Fig 1. Clearly they can't give an example of an actually twin set. Therefore an average of 10 sets was created for illustrative purposes, that shows the difference in perceived age.

  • All though it was a study done on twins >70 years, the authors point out that it might be even more useful at a younger age. This is because you wouldn't say a 80 year old person looks like a 100 year old, yet there are some 40 year olds that look 60. This is the same age jump in terms of actually number of years, yet one is more likely to occur.
  • Perceived age related to physical and mental performance. Various tests were undertaken to measure physical and cognitive performance. In summary if you look young, you have better physically functionality and mental capabilities.
  • No surprises that expose to sun and smoking causes you to look older than your biological age. However a low body mass (BMI) [eg your skinny] is correlated to looking older than you are. This is very interesting because you don't hear about the dangers of being skinny - yet there is clearly a health danger. This is because low BMI makes you look old, looking old means you die sooner! 
  • High social status, low depression score and being married makes you look younger (although this is different between male and female). So pass the prosaic and stay married! 
  • There test panel was made up to female nurses who worked in geriatric care so it hypothesized that these nurses would be very good at judging age because they work with the elderly. Another group was elderly females - the peer group of the twins, who again would have good judgment as they were part of this age group. Also included were young male student teachers (22-37 years old). They were included because the study was interested if there was any differences in perceived age between those who should be good at perceiving age and those who might be very poor at perceiving age. Fascinatingly enough there was no statistically difference between the results across these three people groups. One could conclude from this that most people are good judgments of age, so your judgment of age is likely to be accurate. This is important because our friends and family who look older than there age in years, are likely to be higher risk of dieing.
  • I have graphed some results from a table in the paper. These graphs are grouped according to three biological age groups 70-74, 75-79 and > 80 years old. The perceived age of the study participants were then grouped into three equal categorizes, the first category was the youngest looking third, the middle category is the middle third and the oldest third is the last category. As the study was undertaken using photographs taken in 2001 hence the mortality data is known over the last 8 years. Thus a mortality rate is known for each of these groups. You can see from the graphs (clicking makes them bigger) that being in the oldest third results in a much higher mortality than the first third. Interestingly enough the trend is much stronger for females than males (P value lower for female results. As we would expect the older you get in biological age the higher the mortality rate is.

What also I find fascinating is that for non identical twins as the perceived age difference between them increased, the probability of death in the older looking twin increased. See the figure below. This data was created from the non identical twins who had died since 2001. The changes across the x-axis are the perceived differences grouped into four groups. The first point is 100 % of the twins. The last data point is the top 25% of twins who had the most difference between them. So as you can see as the differences between the twins increased so did the probability that the older looking one died first.

What is even more fascinating is that identical twins did not show this trend. This indicating that there is another effect going on that we are not yet aware of.

The paper then rounds off with the following statement
So far, however, no biomarker of ageing has been able to challenge chronological age as the best predictor of future survival. Our study shows that in a group of people aged ≥70, perceived age is a strong predictor of mortality after adjustment for chronological age.
That sums it up - make sure you look younger than your age (and although good skin care can make you look younger I would seriously doubt if it reduced your probability of death)

Reference: Christensen et al Perceived age as clinically useful biomarker of ageing: cohort study BMJ 2009;339:b5262  doi:10.1136/bmj.b5262 


    1. Fascinating stuff David! For many years it has been suggested that "attitude is everything" and recently more information is coming to light to confirm that "as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he".
      We are all conscious of what we put into our bodies via our mouth, but often not so selective about what we put into our brain via our eyes and ears.
      Our greatest asset is the six inches between our ears!

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