Finding Methuselah at Walmart

old man shopping

What would you think if you came across a scientific study carrying the headline: “Frequent Shopping Prolongs Life, Study Suggests”? Would it be, “I can now persuade my spouse to join me at the Mall?” Or, “Finally George Bush is exonerated for making his famous imprecation to go shopping on the heels of 9/11.” I can think of many other hypothetical responses reinforcing the consumer ethic of today’s society, but would these be justified by this study?

I went to the story of the study to find out. I could only download the abstract without paying $30 for the whole article. It seemed a little steep for a story that didn’t quite bowl me over. Here’s a couple of paragraphs from the abstract. The study was done in Taiwan and is based on a survey of 1841 “representative free-living elderly Taiwanese people.”

Results: Highly frequent shopping compared to never or rarely predicted survival (HR 0.54, 95% CI 0.43 to 0.67) with adjustment for physical function and cognitive function and other covariates HR was 0.73 (95% CI 0.56 to 0.93). Elderly who shopped every day have 27% less risk of death than the least frequent shoppers. Men benefited more from everyday shopping than women with decreased HR 28% versus 23% compared to the least.

Conclusion: Shopping behaviour favourably predicts survival. Highly frequent shopping may favour men more than women. Shopping captures several dimensions of personal well-being, health and security as well as contributing to the community's cohesiveness and economy and may represent or actually confer increased longevity.

ScienceDaily, which appeared to have had the $30 to buy and read the entire article, added a few more details from the journal article.

The authors acknowledge that shopping could be a surrogate for good health to begin with, but suggest that shopping itself may improve health, by ensuring a good supply of food, to maintain a healthy diet, for example.

Frequent shopping among the elderly may not always be about buying things, but about seeking companionship or taking exercise, which is easier to do than more formal exercise that usually requires motivation, they say.

The conclusion, above, seems shaky given the nature of the study. I am not an epidemiologist, but I have always understood that epidemiological surveys of this type could establish a meaningful correlation, but not reveal the cause of the correlation. The authors waffle in the end by saying that the frequency of shopping “may represent or actually confer increased longevity.” They want to have it both ways--a surprising conclusion in an article appearing in a scientific journal. I wonder how they accounted for all the confounding factors that would bear on the conclusions: wealth, health history, proximity to markets, genetic make-up, and many others.

One of their possible explanations for the correlation was that shopping, as a form of social engagement, is conducive to health. I would agree that a rich social life is a factor in overall health. There is data behind this statement, but I cannot quite believe that shopping is a richer experience than whatever would have been foregone during the time behind a grocery cart or cash register at some boutique.

The real concern I have is the way this study was publicized. I came on it through a message from a group of colleagues running an email listserv on sustainable consumption. The sender noticed an article in Cosmopolitan (not known for its scientific acumen) with the headline: “Why You Should Shop Every Day.” The trail then led to the ScienceDaily article with the headline shown at the beginning of this blog post. It ended with the article itself from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health with the title, "Frequent shopping by men and women increases survival in the older Taiwanese population.”

I can see this misleading, unfounded message showing up in many ads and websites produced without spending the $30 to verify the headline’s implications. In normal times, such a story would probably not turn many heads because people, young and old, would not have time to notice it in the short intervals between their trips to the stores and markets. In the current downturn, merchants are using every bit of ammunition at hand to bring customers back into the stores. The squib in Cosmopolitan is particularly troublesome as this magazine survives on advertising and epitomizes our consumer and celebrity culture. As I approach my eightieth birthday, I would love to find some magic formula that would lengthen my days still to come, but I can’t imagine that a few more trips to the store is it.

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1 Comments

Larry Furman said:

You make a few good points here regarding exercise, social, mental and physical stimulation, conflation of cause, effect, and correlation of phenomena.

My father is well past 80. He does not shop every day, or even every week, unless you count as "shopping" frequent "trips" to the telephone to order dinner to be delivered. These are, of course, followed by "trips" to the front door to accept delivery, and "trips" to the kitchen to eat. One person is also not a statistically meaningful sample. However, the anecdotal evidence of one person supports your hypothesis and contradicts the interpretation of the data that appears to be presented by "Cosmo."

He has exercised every day for as long as I can remember. He reads one of the papers of record daily, and has a vibrant social life. This supports the Science Daily analysis that suggests shopping is less about buying things but about companionship and stimulation.