Health and aging

Many people do not want to look older than their age, but researchers have discovered that looking older may not necessarily be a bad thing. Looking old is usually thought to indicate poor health. This may not be the case, at least to a point, says a new study by Dr. Stephen Hwang, a research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

The study found that physicians’ ratings of individuals as looking up to five years older than their actual age had little accuracy in reflecting a person’s health. If a physician judged that a person looked older by a decade or more than their actual age, 99% of these individuals had poor physical or mental health.

For years, physicians have assumed that looking older is a sign of poor health, and includes this information in reports when referring patients to other physicians, said Hwang.

“We were really surprised to find that people have to look a decade older than their actual age before it’s a reliable sign that they’re in poor health. It was also very interesting to discover that many people who look their age are in poor health,” said Hwang. “Doctors need to remember that even if patients look their age, we shouldn’t assume that their health is fine.”

The common practice of assessing whether or not a patient looks older than his or her actual age has certain limitations, states the study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

“Physicians may wish to focus on patients who look 10 or more years older than their actual age,” the researchers wrote. “When physicians encounter such patients, a detailed inquiry into the patient’s physical and mental health status is justified.”

The researchers asked 126 people between the ages of 30 to 70 to complete a survey that accurately determined whether they had poor physical or mental health. Each person was photographed, and the photographs were shown to 58 physicians who were told each person’s actual age and asked to rate how old the person looked.

Findings may not apply to people outside the age range studied or to acutely ill or hospitalized patients, who were not included in the study.

The study suggests that a young-looking person is not necessarily healthy, and an older-looking person may not be in bad health. Researchers urge physicians to investigate further when evaluating their patients and not judge patients’ health based on how they look.

Premature aging depends on many different factors, including sun damage, stress, high cholesterol, drinking, smoking, drug use, caffeine, and genetic factors. These factors usually produce wrinkles, grey hairs, “age spots”, receding hairlines, and diseases such as high blood pressure, all of which make a person look older.

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