Early demise? Don't make lefties laugh

April 05, 1991|By Randi Henderson

When asked about a new study that said left-handed people live nine years' shorter lives on average than right-handed people, Sharlene McEvoy had this to say:

"I just hope the insurance companies don't get hold of this information."

A spokeswoman for Sinistral, a group for high-IQ left-handers, Ms. McEvoy was skeptical of the study, published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"I think that's kind of ridiculous," scoffed Ms. McEvoy, a Connecticut attorney. "I know of many left-handed people who lived to ripe old ages. There was Michelangelo, there was Leonardo da Vinci, Queen Victoria. If this is the case, such a wide disparity, why wasn't it discovered earlier?"

Closer to home, Dr. Kevin Ferentz, a left-handed physician specializing in family practice at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was critical of the publication.

"There's an awful lot of garbage that's published in the New England Journal," he said. "I think they publish some of these things just for shock value."

The study was conducted by psychologists Stanley Coren, from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and Diane Halpern, from California State University in San Bernadino. Neither returned a reporter's call yesterday.

The researchers collected about 2,000 death certificates for a period of several months in two California counties and -- after excluding children under 6, homicide victims and suicides -- sent out questionnaires to survivors about the deceased's favored hand. From 987 responses, they determined that the mean age of death for right-handers was 75, compared to 66 for left-handers.

Dr. Ferentz questioned the size of the sample. "For something as basic as black and white, left and right, you need a very large sample size to claim statistical significance," he said. "For something like this, you need samples of 5,000 to 10,000 people to come up with something meaningful."

Susan Ireland, managing editor of Lefthander Magazine, a Kansas-based publication, said she has been beseiged with phone calls since reports about the article began circulating yesterday.

"Although we respect Dr. Coren and the work he's doing in this field, we would just caution people to have a little bit of healthy skepticism," she said. "It is a small sample. There is no relation given between left-handedness and cause of death. And it was a post-card study. We don't know who filled out those post cards -- it could have been the mailman."

One of the study's findings was that lefties are more likely to die in accidents -- that was the cause of death given for 7.9 percent of the left-handers compared to only 1.5 percent of right-handers.

Janet Farr, a leftie who works in the development office at Sheppard Pratt, joked, "They were probably smothered trying to hang wallpaper. Which is what I tried to do over the weekend. And it kept falling down and hitting me in the face, and someone pointed out to me that I was approaching it from the wrong side."

Other than paper-hanging, Ms. Farr can recall no accidents that she would relate to left-handedness.

Jackson Whitt, a left-handed production director at WBAL Radio, recalled an incident in which "I put a drill bit through my finger one evening. Drills apparently seem to be made for right-handers." Still, he maintained, the study is "obviously not true."

Mr. Whitt, who said he manages to adapt very well to a world tailored to the 90 percent right-handed majority, added the study has given him a new goal in life. "I'm going to live to be 100 and thumb my nose at all of them," he said of the researchers.

And he can find eminent precedent for the goal of being an aged leftie. There was Queen Victoria who died at age 81. Michelangelo died at 89; Benjamin Franklin, 84; Charlie Chaplin, 88. And, of course, President George Bush, still going strong at 66.

Lefties, all.

Wire services contributed to this story.

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