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Can we predict mortality from human faces?

Do ugly older people die younger?

In 2012 Ian Deary and his colleagues with the University of Edinburgh tested whether older adults who looked less attractive died before their more attractive peers. The authors asked people to rate the photographs of 292 older adults aged 83.

They rated the photographs on how old, healthy, attractive, intelligent and happy they looked. They also looked at how symmetrical the faces are (the left side of the face is proportionally similar to the right).

Then the authors followed the people in the photographs over a seven-year period to see which ones died first. They were trying to see if we can predict who dies first. What they found is that the main predictor was how old they were judged to be. After accounting for how old they looked, this was followed by how healthy they were rated from the photographs.

Looking more attractive did not have any advantage after accounting for how old they looked. It seems, looking older rather than looking less attractive predicted an early death. But the two are related; looking attractive is also related to looking younger. Age determines how we judge people as attractive.

Look around and you see people who look better than others, and by better of course, I mean younger. We naturally assume that looking younger is healthier and more attractive. That dress that takes 10 years off, or a haircut that makes you look younger are all compliments. And we can easily speed up ageing by stress for example. We know of people who have gone through a trauma in their life and they ‘aged’ quickly.

We have this idea of the process of ageing that can speed up or slow down. One of the main stressors in our modern lives is money, and lack of it. We know that rich people live longer, but are they also more attractive? Such a relationship could work from both sides, with attractive people getting more preferential treatment and becoming more successful, which in turn allows them to make their life better.

In a 2014 study Susanne Huber and Martin Fieder found that rich parents have children who become attractive young adults (17- to 20-year-olds). Of course, attractiveness is mainly due to the symmetry of the face. In 2001 Deborah Hume and Robert Montgomerie with Queen’s University, Canada, examined this symmetry. What they found is that women symmetry was best predicted by how fat they are and by previous health problems.

For men, facial attractiveness was best predicted by how rich they are and how comfortable their environment is. Attractiveness seems to be positively related to the degree to which an individual copes with stress growing up. For women it is mainly their weight and health, for men it is mainly money.

The economics of beauty has been written about extensively. Daniel Hamermesh in 2011 consolidated some of these thoughts in his book Beauty Pays. There is no age limit for vanity. In the US single women aged 70 and older spend over 43 minutes a day grooming themselves. From archeological sites we can see that grooming behaviour extends across the world and throughout human history.

Of course, what we think as beautiful differs by country, culture and across time, but there are certain constants and being younger is one of them. There are no older Venuses nor older Davids. Old age is not paraded as examples of beauty. It never was in any culture.

Attractiveness seems to be positively related to the degree to which an individual copes with stress growing up

Which is why women are judged more harshly for their looks than men; we also see ageing as being more detrimental to women in how they are treated by others. For people who weren’t born to have attractive features or have been in an accident, Hamermesh mentions that cosmetic surgery has been a solution for many older adults including increasingly for older men.

In 2016 the US spent $16.4 billion on cosmetic procedures. This is one-and-a-half times more than the total economic productivity of Malta ($10.95 billion in 2016). Americans spend more on having body parts modified than Malta’s total economy. And one of the main group is those entering into older age, 55 years and older. In 2016, those aged over 55 and older had 4.1 million total cosmetic procedures, an increase of three to four per cent in procedures since the previous year. Of these 387,000 were surgical procedures, and 3.7 million were minimally-invasive procedures (injections and friction). For middle-aged adults the main surgical procedures were eyelid surgery, facelift, dermabrasion, liposuction and forehead lift.

Minimal invasive surgery in order of popularity included botox, soft tissue fillers, chemical peel, laser skin resurfacing and microdermabrasion. While most popular procedures among young adults focus on their bodies, older adults are apparently more concerned about more visible features, such as their faces. Older adults know that they are being judged by how old they look and their faces are their calling cards.

For these older adults who have had cosmetic surgery, regardless of how young they look, they will not prolong their time of death. What they are fighting is not death but being judged. In a world that judges attractiveness by how old we look, older adults are in greater and increasing numbers resorting to fighting it by attempting to look younger.

But it is the judgement that needs to change. Such vanity discrimination draws striking parallels with ageism, racism and sexism. The only way to confront these is not by becoming the ‘other’ but by eliminating the category of other altogether.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.

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