Two Views of Same Data on Life Expectancy

A Dog's secret to a long happy life...play hard and find a good teddy bear with whom to sleep.  Could it be that simple?
A Dog’s secret to a long happy life…play hard and find a good teddy bear with whom to sleep. Could it be that simple?

Do Numbers Lie or mislead? I suspect we just read into them what we expect “truth” to be.

When I started as a Survey Program Analyst almost 16 years ago, I remember working on some politically sensitive data. My boss said in a somewhat cynical tone, “Tell me what you want to prove, and I can find the statistic to ‘prove’ you correct.” Since then, I have enjoyed running across those statistics which can be used for either side of a disagreement as “proof.”

I was at a healthcare bazaar at my work last week where different supplier came to sell their services. There were insurance companies hoping employees would switch to their insurance or perhaps sign up for the first time. As I walked around, I watched their interest in selling to me predictably fade quickly with the mention of my MS. It was like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld, saying “No long term care insurance for you.”

I get it. Still, I did have some interesting conversations there. It is enlightening to see how caught up in rosy narratives we become when faced with numbers that may say what we want to hear. One of the employee assistance plan workers told me the story of one of his friend being diagnosed with untreatable cancer. The doctor told him and his family to do what they can to make the patient happy because studies show “Happier sick people live longer.” The worker and family took this to mean if they can keep the patient happy he might beat the cancer. This narrative assigned to the facts of less happy people dying quicker gave them power over that truth which they would otherwise be forced to just endure.
I guess I was a Debby Downer, because I pointed out the other “obvious” to me possible explanation for the numbers. Sometimes being really sick and dying is just miserable. Perhaps some of those unhappy people were unhappy because their illness was so miserable to endure, and it was killing them whether they were happy or not? Without knowing what made the people in the study unhappy, it is hard to say why the unhappy people died quicker.

To my, ignorant of the individual facts mind, the narrative where sick unhappy people die sooner than happier ones, suggests a bleaker mindset closer to death. This seems more plausible than healing by positive thinking. I think about the symptoms I am to watch for as a JCV positive patient taking Tysabri. I am supposed to watch for down turns in my mood because they could be a harbinger of PML. Will my happiness ward off PML or is will a darker mood be a canary in the mine?
Maybe I should worry that mind so readily dismisses my mood as a cause of my body worsening. Perhaps I am already doomed.

Of course, I have few objections if my family and friends want to make me happier all the time so I can live longer. Maybe I should start an Emotional Go Fund Me and see how much positive energy is directed my way?

The happier patient population living longer could also be a result of the body having to spend less energy enduring symptoms. I know my symptoms are worse when I am stressed. Of course I also stress over increases in symptoms. I will concede it is plausible that happier patients live longer, but which is the cause and which is the effect in the relationship between happiness and long life is undetermined in my mind.

One happy bear scout
One happy bear scout

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