A new study suggests that features like the wrinkles on your forehead and the way you move may reflect your overall health and risk of dying. But it's not clear whether doctors consider such factors when assessing a patient's health.
In a survey of 1,200 Taiwanese participants, Princeton University researchers found that interviewers -- who were not health professionals but were trained to administer the survey -- provided health assessments that were related to a participant's risk of dying, in part because they were attuned to facial expressions, responsiveness and overall agility.
(For a look at the complete study, go here.)
The researchers report in the journal Epidemiology that these assessments were more accurate predictors of dying than assessments made by doctors or even the participants themselves. The findings show that survey interviewers, who typically spend a fair amount of time observing participants, can pick up key information regarding someone's health simply by observing them.
"Your face and body reveal a lot about your life. We speculate that a lot of information about a person's health is reflected in their face, movements, speech and functioning, as well as in the information explicitly collected during interviews," said Noreen Goldman, Hughes-Rogers Professor of Demography and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School, in a press release.
In order to understand the many variables that go into predicting mortality, researchers took into account such factors as sex, place of residence and marital status. They also considered chronic conditions and psychological wellbeing. They looked at assessments from both interviewers and doctors dating from 2006 and also looked at death records through 2011 to find out which of the participants had died.
"Mortality is easy to measure because we have death records indicating when a person has died," Goldman said in a press release. "Overall health, on the other hand, is very complicated to measure but obviously very important for addressing health policy issues."
Two surprising findings came out of the researchers' analysis. First, doctors are poor at predicting the risk of death even after performing physical exams. Second, interviewers' ratings are actually more accurate when it comes to predicting mortality than even self-ratings. This is likely, Goldman said, because interviewers considered peoples' movements, appearance and responsiveness in addition to the detailed health information gathered during the interviews. Also, Goldman points out, interviewer ratings are probably less affected by bias than self-reports.