Overthinking

by Mark English

In casual conversation, a friend mentioned a video clip she had seen which depicted a little girl apparently being sucked into the jet engine of a plane on the tarmac. My interlocutor was skeptical but was open to the possibility that this might have actually happened. Later I checked it out and told her – via SMS – that it was fictional (taken from a game, actually). Light banter back and forth. “Don’t overthink it,” she said when the discussion got a bit convoluted. Me: “But overthinking is what I do.” She: “We are in the same club. Overthinkers are genius. But they don’t live long.”

I hope she’s wrong on that last point. I thought immediately of a couple of examples (one being the pianist, Glenn Gould) which might suggest that she was on the money. But, however you define overthinkers, and whatever the lifespan statistics may be relating to particular human groups, everyone is different. We all have our idiosyncrasies, our own priorities, values, myths and coping mechanisms. What’s more, one can always nudge the odds in one’s favor.

On the longevity front, I have a dual strategy. The first part involves applying reason to ordinary matters of living. Eating well. Exercising. Doing things to maximize my chances of staying healthy and trying (difficult at times) not to do obviously stupid or foolhardy things that increase the odds of an early death.

The difficulty comes in when those dangerous or foolhardy things are not simply stupid but are also meaningful in some way. For most people, sex is probably the main culprit here, directly (in terms of the risks involved in certain types of sexual behavior), but also indirectly. The psychological stresses associated with most romantic attachments (jealousy, breaking up, etc.) inevitably take their toll and, sadly, completely overwhelm some. (1)

There is also the problem that behaviors perceived as cool (and so conducive to maximizing sexual opportunities) are themselves all too often harmful to health. The cool option is not always the dangerous one, of course. ‘Cool’ is not synonymous with ‘dangerous’. Stupidly dangerous activities are generally uncool. But cool is usually perceived as incorporating an element of risk-taking.

The second part of my dual strategy is less rational (at least on the surface). It’s all about hoodoos.

I am using the word in the sense of something that brings bad luck; it was used throughout my childhood and early adulthood by an aunt who lived with us for a time and who took us children out on a regular basis. Her usage of the term was mostly related to sport but sometimes to politics (sport by another name). The gist of it was that any statement of confidence was tempting fate. Pride before a fall, that kind of thing. In simple terms, you put a hoodoo on someone by predicting their success. This mode of thinking was driven deep into my impressionable brain. Which explains, to some extent at least, my hypochondria.

This is how it works. I always half-expect the worst, but avert my gaze. I assiduously monitor symptoms but avoid consulting doctors as far as possible and especially that reckless destroyer of peace of mind, Dr. Google. If symptoms are apparently serious or getting worse, I’ll make an appointment with an actual doctor. But generally I just stay observant and live from day to day.

The trick is to stay ignorant but not too ignorant. Medical practitioners tend not to live long lives. No doubt there are all sorts of reasons for this but one of the main ones is, I think, that they know too much about what is going on under the skin. (2)

My hypochondria works as a kind of double bluff or perhaps as what Douglas Hofstadter would call a “strange loop.” It involves turning the tendency to worry back on itself in order to neutralize it (at least to some extent).

In the back of my mind I am constantly aware of the possibilities of serious illness (and of course of the certainty of you-know-what). This awareness prevents the sort of complacency or overconfidence which would be, as it were, tempting fate – the equivalent of putting a hoodoo on oneself.

So far, so irrational. But there is method in my madness, because my self-identification as a hypochondriac is strangely reassuring. It is my rabbit’s foot, my security blanket; but it is a charm of which the workings are clear and open rather than mysterious, being driven by simple deduction rather than blind superstition. My lucky charm has (or at least appears to have) logic on its side.

Of course, it’s not enough that someone simply deems himself to be a hypochondriac. You’ve got to have genuine hypochondriacal tendencies for this particular lucky charm to have any potency. In other words, other people – preferably doctors – have to make this judgment. And from an early age I have had indications from various medicos that I am the genuine article. (3)

For example, I remember seeing a general practitioner when I was in my early twenties and traveling. I was a bit stressed and imagined that I had had a stroke or something. He was marvelously calm and slightly amused and wondered if I had read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I had, actually. I knew the passage he was referring to – a classic account of how a certain type of person reacts to browsing through a medical dictionary. (4)

My hypochondriacal tendencies were exposed – and confirmed – again when I saw a well-known cardiologist not so long ago. He is famous for his rudeness, but it is a reassuring kind of rudeness, a kind of professional rhetoric. While I and few others (but not Jack apparently) were sitting in the waiting area, he came out of his consulting room asking, “Where’s Jack? Where’s Jack? I’m going to kill him.”

I had an X-ray which appeared to show problems with my heart and lungs. When the doctor saw the X-ray, he just threw it dismissively across his desk and said it was underexposed or overexposed (I forget which) and totally useless. He was almost aggressive in challenging me to say what the problem was. He did a quick hands-on examination (tapping and listening and so on). Nothing showed up. He made me feel a bit of a fool and I was enormously grateful to him.

My friend was right. Being an overthinker or, in simple terms, a worrier is not particularly healthy. But the intelligent worrier will use her logical powers to construct personal coping mechanisms to take the sting out of that sense of doom and dread that lurks within. I am a confirmed hypochondriac, I tell myself, so I probably haven’t really got that dreaded disease. Right?

More broadly, I try to channel my natural pessimism away from the personal and into the cultural and cosmic spheres. It’s the personal that counts above all. Personal optimism is all-important, for social confidence, for coping, for staying strong.

Forget about happiness. We’re not in that kind of world. The trick is to recognize the nature of our predicament but to stay upbeat. Like Brandon Flowers’ Mr. Brightside, for instance.

Or (to take a more serious example) like Friedrich Nietzsche. Before a horrible disease consumed his brain, that is.

NOTES

  1. I am not denying the existence of happy marriages and long-term relationships. But most of my own observations and experiences – coupled with my literary education – predispose me to see them as the exception rather than the rule.
  2. In order to avoid unnecessary stress and worry, airline pilots follow a very similar logic to mine with respect to their aircraft. They are not interested in the mechanical side of things; engineers and technicians deal with that. They keep their focus on the instrument panel. If there are no flashing red lights, all is well.
  3. I am using the term “hypochondria” in its normal English sense rather than in a medical sense. The DSM does not list hypochondria (or hypochondriasis), but does include Illness Anxiety Disorder which, I take it, is what mild, common-or-garden hypochondria becomes if it gets out of control and becomes a medical issue.
  4. “It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt… I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch — hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into — some fearful, devastating scourge, I know — and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it. I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever — read the symptoms — discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it — wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance — found, as I expected, that I had that too, — began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically — read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with… I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.”

Categories: Essay, Essays

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22 Comments »

  1. I must admit to being surprised at how superstitious you are. So many of your pieces are devoted to commending and recommending rationality and clear thinking and chiding people for their various shortcomings in this area.

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  2. Philosophers worry and are suspicious. Those hedging locutions keep us on the safe side of commitment.

    When everything in your brain’s a link
    Then you can be said to overthink.
    Hover the cursor of your attention
    Let nothing go without a mention.

    I asked my gude wife ‘Do I overthink’? We agreed that excessive weighing of options, alternatives and choices is a way of staving off the evil hour of actually doing something. Which is of course true. The Zen master said
    – Cut off your other hand.

    I have a friend who is a hypochondriac, at least I think he is because he has all the acronyms at his command and was very annoyed with me because I didn’t know the details of my medical condition now behind me I hope, I’m glad to say.
    – Look, I said I don’t want to know.
    – It’s probably type B.

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  3. Hi Mark,
    This was a good read and has sparked some ideas for me. I’m mostly thinking about the possible benefits or problems arising from compartmentalizing the positive and negative in life into the internal and external experiences, respectively. Or at least that’s how I interpreted the last bits you wrote about channeling pessimism.
    And concerning Nietzsche, I think (as you seem to be saying) his life is more illustrative of the possible benefits; if he had succumbed to all the misfortunes surrounding his life or did not remain strong-willed in his personal experiences, he likely would not still be relevant today.
    So, while I think maybe a lot of harm can come from being blindly optimistic (e.g. ignorance of personal shortcomings, too much blame on external factors for failure, etc), I think the benefits of a more realistic optimism that turns pessimism outwards could outweigh the potential harm.
    Thanks!

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  4. Hello Mark!
    I was struck with a bout of this in my mid-20s after finishing my master’s degrees. Looking back, I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, less to occupy my mind, and some relationship anxiety, all of which were playing into my sudden certainty that I was about to die. These days, it’s easy to control when I’m occupied and considerably more difficult during school breaks. It’s amazing to me how quickly my otherwise optimistic, pragmatic nature (at least, that’s how I read myself) turns desperate, fearful, and irrational. I find it very difficult to control despite “knowing” that it’s not rational, and I think that’s partly because the human body doesn’t act in rational ways.

    I feel like every thirty seconds there is new research about the body and what parts of it do, how they react to stimuli, and what “makes” us “sick,” including how much control we even have over the whole situation. We haven’t even begun to understand our bodies. On pithy days, I tell myself that only an irrational person *wouldn’t* be concerned. 🙂

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  5. Dan

    “I must admit to being surprised at how superstitious you are. So many of your pieces are devoted to commending and recommending rationality and clear thinking and chiding people for their various shortcomings in this area.”

    Last part first. I’m sorry if I have ever come across as scolding or chastising or anything of the kind. In no way do I see myself as a paragon of intellectual or any other kind of virtue.

    I have certain views about how the world is and I express them as best I can. I realize that some of these views will sometimes anger or offend others, but I always hope that in such cases the other party will take what I have to say in the way it’s meant (i.e. merely as an honest statement of a point of view) and – ideally – will respond in a similar spirit.

    With respect to my being superstitious, I don’t think I am in any meaningful sense of the word. Recognizing our frailties and trying to understand our various coping mechanisms certainly doesn’t amount to superstition. And the OP is mainly about coping mechanisms.

    That hoodoo business is a long-standing family tradition: “Don’t put a hoodoo on him!” It’s jokey. Maybe at some level I half-believe it (in the sense of pride before a fall). As I said, it was drilled deep into my defenseless young brain.

    And maybe a previous family doctor (a highly regarded clinician and a practising surgeon) half believed that her constant “touching wood” had some positive effect. We know it doesn’t in any hocus-pocus sense, but it’s part of the picture from a psychological point of view.

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  6. Oh, yeah, I knock on wood and all that. Maybe I got the impression that you took the Hoodoo thing more seriously than that. All this stuff about deliberately not consulting doctors, while vigilantly monitoring yourself. It seemed more superstitious than I would have thought, given your usual affect and the thematic line of practical rationality that runs through all your pieces.

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  7. ombhurbhuva

    “Philosophers worry and are suspicious. Those hedging locutions keep us on the safe side of commitment.”

    Ideally! As I see it philosophers are generally not the *worst* offenders in respect of what concerns me here; and the very nature of the discipline (critical, skeptical…) is a positive in this regard. My main concern is that science and scholarship not be politicized.

    “[E]xcessive weighing of options, alternatives and choices is a way of staving off the evil hour of actually doing something.”

    Frankly, I think there is a lot to be said for not doing anything – a lot of the time, anyway. Doing nothing is often the right thing to do.

    “The Zen master said
    – Cut off your other hand.”

    I watched a documentary once about life in a Zen monastery. It put me off Zen for life. (Much too violent/physical for me!)

    “I have a friend who is a hypochondriac, at least I think he is because he has all the acronyms at his command and was very annoyed with me because I didn’t know the details of my medical condition now behind me I hope…”

    As I explain in the OP, my approach is to avoid knowing too much, because to do so runs the risk of paralyzing me. I know how I function (and it seems to bear some similarity to Margaret’s account of her own experience). There are people who can cope with that knowledge, but I would put them in a different category from the kind of person I am.

    Just to clarify further, I have a lot of knowledge concerning food and nutrition and certain diseases which relatives have suffered from. I keep up with reports of research on things which I can do to improve the odds a bit. Strangely, many of these dietary and other practices are effective against a wide range of diseases.

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  8. Hi Lillie

    Thank you. If this has sparked your own thoughts, great.

    “… And concerning Nietzsche, I think (as you seem to be saying) his life is more illustrative of the possible benefits; if he had succumbed to all the misfortunes surrounding his life or did not remain strong-willed in his personal experiences, he likely would not still be relevant today.”

    His best writing is very upbeat, I would say. But dark nonetheless.

    “So, while I think maybe a lot of harm can come from being blindly optimistic (e.g. ignorance of personal shortcomings, too much blame on external factors for failure, etc), I think the benefits of a more realistic optimism that turns pessimism outwards could outweigh the potential harm.”

    I think so. I see what you are getting at with respect to the possible dangers, but I had a slightly different idea of externalizing one’s natural pessimism.

    For example, you can be a cultural pessimist (as I am, or Wittgenstein was) without doing much harm. (But I must admit that I do tend to annoy people a bit, especially if they are working in the arts or are very committed to what is currently going on in the arts.)

    And my cosmic pessimism is also pretty harmless, I would say. I am thinking of a Woody Allen-as-a-child character who was taken to a psychiatrist by his mother because he was deeply depressed about the expanding universe.

    I agree with you entirely that blaming others for one’s own failures is a very unattractive trait. But people prone to anxiety are often very self-critical and all too aware of their shortcomings. It’s the natural optimist who is not prone to depression who typically overrates his/her own capacities and fails to see weaknesses etc..

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  9. Hi Margaret

    “… It’s amazing to me how quickly my otherwise optimistic, pragmatic nature (at least, that’s how I read myself) turns desperate, fearful, and irrational. I find it very difficult to control despite “knowing” that it’s not rational, and I think that’s partly because the human body doesn’t act in rational ways.”

    Yes, but I think perhaps only some of us experience things in quite this way. I relate to your experience as described here; others may not.

    “I feel like every thirty seconds there is new research about the body and what parts of it do, how they react to stimuli, and what “makes” us “sick,” including how much control we even have over the whole situation. We haven’t even begun to understand our bodies. On pithy days, I tell myself that only an irrational person *wouldn’t* be concerned.”

    Quite. But I take a degree of comfort from the fact that many people who are old and healthy today grew up in less than ideal circumstances. In World War 2 and post WW2 Europe, for instance. Or Japan.

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  10. Mark,
    This suspicion thing intrigues me because there’s so much of it about in philosophical discussions. Suspicion can be confirmed or disconfirmed on the basis of further evidence. But is philosophy that sort of scientific empirical activity? An inference to the best explanation makes a suggestion we call a suspicion. I would call it ‘ a theory of interest’ in the way that certain police forces refer to a person of interest i.e. a suspect. Philosophy though in the rationalist tradition spins out its web from the basis of axioms, clear and distinct ideas, fundamentals etc. It is not evidential in the way that science is.

    In soccer terms I’m probably taking too much out of the ball.

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  11. Hi Mark:

    You have a nice way of combining the serious and the humorous. I wonder if anyone else reads Jerome K. Jerome today? Or, for that matter, George and Weedon Grossmith.

    On the medical front, I take, and recommend, regular doses of Malcolm Kendrick:

    https://drmalcolmkendrick.org

    Alan

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  12. Thanks Alan.

    Haven’t read Diary of a Nobody but know of it through John Betjeman’s ‘Middlesex’. (“… Cockney singers, cockney shooters, Murray Poshes, Lupin Pooters, /Long in Kensal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.”)

    Followed your link to Dr Malcolm Kendrick. Was struck by this passage (he is discussing the causes of cardiovascular disease):

    “Yes, of course, I bring certain biases to the discussion. I am almost entirely anti-statin. I am not a great believer in blood pressure lowering – at least not at current levels. I do not believe in the cholesterol hypothesis and I think that the anti-saturated fat dogma is completely bonkers and has no evidence to support it – at all. I believe that salt is good for and, in most people, protects against CVD.

    I believe that a high carbohydrate low fat diet is utterly bonkers – especially in those with diabetes. And suchlike. In short, I believe that almost everything we are told is good for you, is bad for you, and vice-versa. With the exception of smoking (bad) and exercise (good).

    Having got that out of my system. Let us begin….”

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  13. I first encountered “Diary of a Nobody” through hearing Betjeman read it on the BBC. That was a while ago.

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  14. Hypochondria was thought to be a melancholy-related disease of the abdomen which produced pathological fumes – dangerous for the brain. So the physician advises the use of a blacksmith’s bellows to extract the unwanted air and thus cure the hypochondriac folly. (from the blog of Radu Suciu http://radusuciu.tumblr.com/)

    Burton has this cure for the hypochondriacal melancholy:

    Empirics have a myriad of medicines, as to swallow a bullet of lead, &c., which I voluntarily omit. Amatus Lusitanus, cent. 4. curat. 54. for a hypochondriacal person, that was extremely tormented with wind, prescribes a strange remedy. Put a pair of bellows end into a clyster pipe, and applying it into the fundament, open the bowels, so draw forth the wind, natura non admittit vacuum. He vaunts he was the first invented this remedy, and by means of it speedily eased a melancholy man. Of the cure of this flatuous melancholy, read more in Fienus de Flatibus, cap. 26. et passim alias.

    

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  15. Mark, you rogue! Your whimsical pieces are unexpectedly deep.

    Unlike Dan-K, I see no touch of the superstitious in your writing. Instead I see you exposing our deepest existential anxieties. We alone of all the animal species can conceive of the future. This God-like ability is both out greatest blessing and our greatest curse. It is our blessing because it allows us to prepare for the future and the ability to prepare for the future has turned evolution on its head. It is our curse because we constantly fear the future that we continuously fall into. And for good reason, because we see all around us that the future is the harbinger of all our fears. You have described in your masterfully whimsical way your own strategy for dealing with this existential anxiety.

    How should we deal with this feared future? Look the other way? Trust to chance? Fight it? Or accept it? Trust our instincts? Or trust our reason? Which strategy should we use? There are no clear answers but you have described something of your own strategy. Hamlet said

    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
    and thus the native hue of Resolution
    Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
    And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
    with this regard their Currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of Action.

    A dear and close friend fought breast cancer with all the determination she could summon. She bent the powers of her reason to seek out the best oncologists and the best treatment. She won. Then twice she got cancer in her mouth. She fought it and won. But then I lost another two of my three best friends to cancer.

    There is no victory over fate. All we can do is fight a rear guard action to protect others. And this I suggest is where our greatest nobility lies, to become the example that will inspire others, even as we are ground down by remorseless fate. If our life can become a beacon to others, inspiring them to live a better life, then we have lived a good life.

    I can think of no better example than the fate of the men aboard the HMS Birkenhead. They stood drawn up in their ranks as the ship sank after hitting a reef. Their bravery unto death allowed the women and children to escape on the few lifeboats. Today this is known as the Birkenhead Drill, which is observed by all seafaring nations.

    Their behaviour was not the product of “the pale cast of Thought“. It was instead the result of deep principle allied with unrelenting determination.

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  16. Thanks labnut.

    You have your own way of putting things and aspire to rather higher moral standards than I do but I have often been pleasantly surprised at the degree of overlap in our thinking.

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  17. Assuming this is true (and I can neither affirm nor deny it), I question your reason.

    I wouldn’t want to venture a guess — perhaps their shorter lifespan would be a product of a multitude of factors, and trying to distinguish one more prominent than another is impossible. I have worked as a physician assistant in the medical profession for 18 years — worked with two neurosurgeons, one orthopedic surgeon, one general/bariatric surgeon, and several psychiatrists, etc. For the most part, their lives are stressful, often of their own making. But I am not even sure that stress functions, in any way, as a longevity determinant. And I wonder if other distinctions might emerge — surgeons vs. clinical medicine practitioners, or differences broken down by medical specialty (e.g., oncology, endocrinology, hematology, cardiology, etc.)

    An interesting topic, but I don’t see how we could explore it scientifically. E.g., a male doctor who family history includes early prostate cancer is already at risk of an early demise, and factors such as this are independent of being a doctor or having an advanced knowledge of the medicine.

    On overthinking, my son was home and had a book on the psychology of poker. I opened it up and read a brief passage on overthinking. The author (don’t recall his name) described overthinking as a kin to an executive “having a cluttered desktop.” Overthinking is messy and nonproductive.

    Of course, the immediate application is don’t “overthink” when you are playing poker.

    I don’t think too much knowledge necessarily leads to overthinking. I was thinking — and I may be overthinking here — that overthinkers may fail to distinguish good or vital information from less valuable or “background” information, and then become overwhelmed, which causes them indecision, etc. Since we live in an information intense time, it is crucial that we sort out the essential, good, and vital information as quickly and efficiently and possible, and make our best decision and act on it.

    In some cases, we can delay decisions, but then again, we would make an cost assessment of delaying a decision, and further reflection may aid in sorting out the most productive course of action.

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  18. Re the preceding post:

    Sorry, but I’m not sure why my quote didn’t appear as I quoted it, but perhaps enclosing it in the characters created the confusion. I am commenting on Mark’s suggestion that medical practitioners live shorter lives because they know “too much about what is going on under their skin”.

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  19. valariansteel

    I had not and have not sought to address either of the claims in a serious way, but your comment prompted me to do a bit of googling.

    One study based on mortality statistics from 28 U.S. states from 1984 to 1995 doesn’t support my claim. It shows white male physicians dying on average at a slightly more advanced age than the general population, about the same as lawyers. (The figures for *black male lawyers* stood out as being particularly bad: average age at death 62, versus 63.6 for the general black male population.)

    This study does confirm something I had heard, however: that suicide rates among doctors are relatively high.

    The authors of the study talk about the “myth” that physicians are short-lived, suggesting at least that my view of the matter is not unusual.

    And a more recent study seems to dramatically confirm this “myth”, at least in respect of doctors working in India.

    “An observation by the Indian Medical Association’s (IMA) Pune chapter says that an Indian doctor’s average lifespan is 55-59 years, almost 10 years less than that of the general population. It was based on the analysis of the association’s social security scheme (SSS) with 5,500 doctors from Maharashtra and over 11,000 from across the country registered. IMA Pune chapter’s president Dr Dilip Sarda told DNA that their data of the last five years indicated that doctors’ lifespan was pointing to an alarming trend. “An average Indian lives up to 69-72 years whereas a doctor lives only up to 55 to 59 years which is shocking. It was noticed that most early deaths were due to cardiac arrest,” he said… Stress, sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise were the causes of early death…”

    With regard to my claim about the nature of their expert knowledge being a factor, it was not meant entirely seriously, though I thought – and still think – that it might have a grain of truth in it. (Adding to stress and anxiety.)

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