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Looking good, feeling good

(ran SP, TP, PT, HT, CI editions)

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 older, 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 1 (appears sick) to 5 (appears very healthy).

For comparison, the retirees rated their own health on a scale from 1 (poor) to 5 (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 appeared in 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.