Heads up — new research from the UK shows that poor reflexes and slow reaction time can indicate a shorter lifespan, illuminating a traditionally overlooked factor of mortality.
Although it’s no secret that an organism with subpar reflexes will get wiped out of its gene pool pretty quickly, this feature of evolution has long since stopped applying to humans, who now grapple with tech trends and social media rather than natural predators. But does that mean that reaction time no longer has any bearing on our health and strength? Dr. Gareth Hagger-Johnson, a researcher at University College London and author of a new study on the subject, believes that the absence of a threat doesn’t necessarily undo the benefits of a keen mind.
"Reaction time is thought to reflect a basic aspect of the central nervous system and speed of information processing is considered a basic cognitive ability,” he said in a press release. “Our research shows that a simple test of reaction time in adulthood can predict survival, independently of age, sex, ethnic group, and socio-economic background.”
The study, which is published in the journal PLoS One, shows that people whose brains take longer to react to outside information are more likely to die — from any cause — compared to people with average reaction time. “Reaction time may indicate how well our central nervous and other systems in the body are working,” Johnson explained. “People who are consistently slow to respond to new information may go on to experience problems that increase their risk of early death.”
Test Your Reaction Time — Predict Early Death?
To investigate, Johnson and colleagues asked 5,000 people from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to play a simple computer game designed to assess reaction time. The task was very simple: Push a button every time you see an image appear on the computer screen in front of you. The experiment, which began in the early 1990s, sought to determine whether a person’s reaction time could be said to influence her likelihood of dying within the next 15 years.
Over the next decade-and-a-half, 378 (7.4 percent) of the 5,000 participants died. By viewing the mortality rate against the computer test scores gathered 15 years earlier, the researchers were able to determine that people with slower reaction times were 25 percent more likely to have died compared to people with average scores. Curious to see how you stack up? Try a version of the computer game here.
Why, then, are people with slower reaction time more likely to die early compared to their quick witted peers? In an email to Medical Daily, Johnson said that, while the apparent correlation is in need of more research, reaction time may simply be an indicator of the body’s overall strength and aptitude. “One theory is that slow reaction time might reflect deterioration of other bodily systems, such as the brain and nervous system,” he said. “Perhaps people who are slower to react are also more unhealthy.”
He also did not rule out the possibility that a common, unknown cause accounts for both poor reflexes and shorter lives. “In the future, we may be able to use reaction times to monitor health and survival,” he concluded. “For now, a healthy lifestyle is the best thing people can do in order to live longer."
Source: Hagger-Johnson G, Deary IJ, Davies CA, Weiss A, Batty GD. Reaction Time and Mortality from the Major Causes of Death: The NHANES-III Study. PLoS One. 2014.