The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams. For publication the week ending Friday, 08-09-96. Copyright 1996 Chicago Reader, Inc. All rights reserved. Publication without express written permission or before Monday of the week ending 08-09-96 is prohibited.
What is the connection between handedness and death? I have heard that statistically lefties are more accident prone and die earlier. I’m a lefty and I’m getting scared. Does it work like smoking–if I quit now, will my stats improve? Thank goodness the insurance companies don’t ask, but I’ll bet my life-insurance agent watched carefully as I signed my policy.
–Dan Kaplan, Evanston, Illinois
I feel your pain, brother–I’m left-handed too. So were all the major candidates in the last presidential election (assuming your idea of major is Clinton, Bush, and Perot). Chances are all the major candidates in the next one will be too, although I suppose Dole’s war injury makes him a special case. Five of the last ten U.S. presidents have been left-handed, although lefties account for only 10 percent of the population.
Obviously we have a gift for leadership. The only problem is a lot of us don’t live long enough to use it.
That at any rate is the thesis of psychologist Stanley Coren, the man largely responsible for changing the image of lefties from lovable klutzes to doomed race. Coren’s 1992 book, The Left-Hander Syndrome, argued that for a variety of reasons, ranging from less immunity to disease to a higher accident rate, lefties didn’t live as long as righties.
Based on a survey of the relatives of a thousand recently deceased people in California, Coren claimed that the average lefty died nine years sooner than the average righty (66 versus 75).
Many scoffed at this, the chief objection being that the life-expectancy gap was implausibly large–larger even than the gap between smokers and nonsmokers. Insurance company actuarial departments would have to have been in a coma not to have noticed a difference this huge before now.
Other research has failed to substantiate Coren’s claim, finding either a much smaller difference in life expectancy or no difference at all. Coren’s own previous study of baseball player life spans (drawn, charmingly enough, from the Baseball Encyclopedia) found only an eight-month gap, and even that has been vigorously disputed.
Coren now seems to have conceded the nine-year gap may be a little off. A study of British cricket players found a two-year gap, which he has described as reasonable.
Still, even a two-year gap is sizable. If it turns out to be legit, you wouldn’t be surprised to find life-insurance applications with “left-handed” on the risk-factor checkoff list right after “smokes” and “does drugs.”
So we are left to ponder the question: Can this be, pardon the expression, right?
A lot of people say no way. If Coren’s research shows that relatively few old people are left-handed, they argue, that’s because lefties in the old days were forced to convert, like medieval Jews.
Me? I’m not so sure. As a general proposition no one doubts that lefties differ in fundamental ways from righties.
There is a fair amount of evidence that left-handedness is caused by minor brain damage at birth (although there seems to be a genetic component as well). Possibly as a result, lefties are clumsier if perhaps also more creative.
Looking through the medical literature I find studies reporting that lefties have a higher accident rate, are more likely to have their fingers amputated due to power-tool accidents, suffer more wrist fractures, etc. What’s more, lefties suffer a higher incidence of allergies, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and certain learning disabilities.
Lefties also show unusually high frequencies of depression, drug abuse, bed-wetting, attempted suicide, epilepsy, lower-than-normal birth weight, sleeping disorders, autoimmune diseases, homosexuality, and schizophrenia, a 1992 article in the Atlantic notes.
Not to mention the fact, as we have already seen, that they have a significantly greater danger of becoming U.S. president. If that won’t take years off your life I don’t know what will. My advice to fellow southpaws: keep your head low, avoid power tools, and never, ever accept a convention draft.
Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration of man sitting on bed holding gun to his head, by Slug Signorino.