Loneliness and losing your sense of smell have been included on a list of ‘hidden killers’ that could deny you a long and healthy life, while broken sleep and difficulty in walking also appear on the list, compiled by Chicago researchers.
Odd as it may seem, even something as seemingly innocuous as an arm broken in middle-age may affect the odds of dying years later as the researchers say these factors are just as important as obvious medical conditions such as weight, blood pressure and heart disease.
In fact, being obese won’t necessarily send people to an early grave. And age, it seems, really is just a number.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Chicago University researchers said we must look at a person as a whole if we are to accurately judge their health.
The team, which included psychologists, sociologists and doctors specialising in the care of the elderly, analysed a mountain of data on the health and habits of 3,000 men and women aged between 57 and 85.
This included details about ‘standard’ conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, as well as information about factors such as loneliness, ease of walking and the strength of the various senses, including smell.
Including the extra information provided a much more accurate picture about which of the volunteers was likely to have died or become very infirm over the following five years.
It also allowed the researchers to divide the men and women into six groups, from the most healthy to the least healthy. These contained some surprises.
For instance, the members of the healthiest group were all overweight. And despite them having only a 6% chance of dying or becoming very unwell, high blood pressure was also common.
However, psychological health, mobility and the sense of smell were all good and the researchers said that if an older adult is otherwise healthy, obesity ‘seems to pose very little risk’.
Another group, with a 14% chance of death or very bad health, was distinguished by its members having broken a bone after the age of 45.
These men and women were at higher risk of osteoporosis in old age. However, they were very active and mobile and so it isn’t entirely clearly that a break in middle age is a harbinger of ill health to come.
A third group had 19% odds of death or very bad health, and was plagued by mental health problems, including stress, depression and loneliness, as well as sleep problems.
Previous research has found loneliness to be as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with social isolation weakening the immune system and a person’s resistance to disease, while pushing up blood pressure.
Past studies also suggest poor sense of smell may be a warning of impending ill health. It is thought that the health of the olfactory nerve, which carries information on smell from the nose to the brain, is a sign of overall health.
And if the nerve has become old, damaged and unable to repair itself, the brain and body may be in the same position.
Despite the importance of the ‘hidden killers’, classic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity were rife among those with the highest risk of death and ill health.
THE HIDDEN KILLERS THAT LEAD TO AN EARLY GRAVE
1. A broken bone
3. Loss of sense of smell
4. Trouble walking
5. Broken sleep