Here's looking at you -- and your well-being

Times Staff Writer

Maybe it's not so shallow after all, that most good-natured greeting, "Hey, you're looking well." If made in earnest, this observation can be a remarkably accurate assessment of a person's physical health, a new study suggests.

Researchers in New Jersey had a team of students conduct in-depth interviews with 851 men and women, age 50 and up, all living in a retirement community. After a short training course, the students visited the retirees at home and asked about their moods, medical histories, hobbies and the circumstances of their lives. After each interview, the students assigned an overall health rating, from one (appears sick) to five (appears very healthy), to the retiree. For comparison, the retirees rated their own health on a scale from one (poor) to five (excellent).

Ten years later, the men and women who the students thought appeared sick or less healthy were three times more likely to have died than those rated as healthy-looking, the researchers found. The predictive value of the students' ratings, they also found, was far better than the health grades the retirees had given themselves 10 years earlier -- grades that, presumably, were based on much better information (that is, their own experience).

"The students were paying attention to whether the other person was animated or not, their expressiveness, how well they functioned, the pool of life energy that was there -- things that we think could be very important in judging health," said Howard Leventhal, a psychologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Leventhal conducted the study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Health Psychology, with his wife, Dr. Elaine Leventhal, an internist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and psychologist Ian Brissette.

When rating their own health, people often brush their medical histories with a gloss of optimism and hope. "My heart is bad, but it's not that bad." "The diabetes is progressing, but it's not so serious." In fact, good psychological health rests partly on a refusal to indulge in gloomy preoccupation with the threat of illness, even while taking steps to address real symptoms. Doctors also have shown that chronic depression can slow recovery from heart attacks, strokes or other illnesses.

That's why the common social lie told to haggard-looking friends, in-laws or others -- "Hey, you look greaaat" -- also has health consequences, Leventhal said. As previous studies have found, people told they look unwell are highly likely to suddenly notice "symptoms," even when they're physically fine. In this case, perhaps, the schoolmasters are right: If you don't have anything good to say, then don't.

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