Study finds psychological variables to be most important mortality predictors for most people

Psychological Science published “Think Fast, Feel Fine, Live Long A 29-Year Study of Cognition, Health, and Survival in Middle-Aged and Older Adults” online on 2-25-16.  This  article reports on a 29 year study of over 6,000 people which evaluated “the relative and combined influence of 65 mortality risk factors.”  The study found, “…two psychological variables—subjective health status and processing speed—were among the top predictors of survival.” Also, “relations between processing speed and mortality risk mainly hinge on pathologies that develop in mid- to late adulthood (i.e., rather than genetic precursors or early-life events)—although we cannot state this definitively because we did not assess risk factors during youth. More broadly, both subjective health status and processing speed likely mediate relations between other risk factors and mortality outcomes.”

Comparing typical medical risk factors to these two psychological variables, the authors found, “Specific medical risk factors—in particular cardiovascular symptoms (which we hypothesized to be key to risk prediction)—appeared to play less of a role than expected. It may be that these specific health markers (e.g., difficulty breathing, blood pressure, chest pain) are of greater importance for predicting mortality risk in populations with more sharply declining health (e.g., smokers).

The authors concluded, “Information about these attributes can be obtained with relatively little effort or cost and—given the tractability of these measures in different cultural contexts—may prove expedient for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions related to increased mortality risk in diverse human populations.”

This article comes to our attention thanks to the prolific psychology posting service of Ken Pope, Ph.D.

My take: this study provides support for additional research on how health care psychologists can help people with these two psychological variables. It also supports attending to them when working with our middle-aged and older adult patients.

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