Superpowers you can harness to promote a long and healthy life
Spider-Man’s superhuman speed and strength should serve him well in old age, helping prevent falls, a leading cause of disability and death among seniors. If he makes it to old age, that is.
Peter Parker, Spidey’s high-school-aged alter-ego, is often out all night, hunting down bad guys while not getting the 8-plus hours of sleep needed by someone his age to support a healthy mind and body. Inadequate sleep raises the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, among other obstacles to a long and healthy life.
“Lack of sleep has been associated with poorer mental health, the development of obesity and higher rates of accidents,” says Ruth Hubbard, MD, a professor and head of geriatric medicine at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Spider-Man is one of five real case studies of fictional characters in which Hubbard and her colleagues analyze how genetics, circumstances and lifestyle choices might affect the health and longevity of superheroes in the Marvel universe.
The results, published December 13 in the journal BMJ, include some common superhero superpowers that we mortals would be wise to lean into:
- Optimism (yes, optimists live longer)
- Strong social connections and cohesion (loneliness is deadly)
- Psychological resilience (you may be more resilient than you realize)
- Physical activity (sorry, but it’s a huge factor)
“They often undertake high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which has been linked with improved health status in aging men,” the scientists write. (Women benefit from HIIT, too). “Even during discussions about how to stop aliens from enslaving humanity, superheroes stand regularly and pace, increasing their step count and reducing sedentary behavior, which should put them in good stead for reducing their mortality.”
Beyond these age-defying traits, however, some superheroes have serious health concerns, too.
Hulk (aka Bruce Banner)
You do not want to take your health cues from this guy.
As Bruce Banner transforms from regular dude to hulking superhero, his heart rate soars above 200 beats per minute. That suggests a predisposition to irregular heartbeats that can indicate high risk of stroke, dementia and premature death, the scientists write.
“Hulk probably has the most risk factors,” Hubbard tells me. “He is morbidly obese with an estimated BMI of 120, he has an unstable heart rhythm, and he admits to living with constant anger. These factors have been associated with poor functional status in old age and reduced life expectancy.”
Black Panther (aka T’Challa)
If you wish to live long and prosper, this superhero could be your model, for reasons both in his control and some bequeathed. His presumed vegetarian diet is linked to healthy aging, and his high socioeconomic status — education and wealth within a prosperous society — gives him another leg up.
Just ask anyone without good health insurance or access to great doctors how important socioeconomic status is to their well-being.
However, the Black Panther’s genius intellect and superior physical prowess owe to an herb unknown to modern science. Its effects on long-term health and aging are impossible to predict, so the scientists can only speculate that caution is warranted: “Performance enhancing drugs in general are linked to increased death rate and a variety of adverse health effects and reduced quality of life,” they write.
Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff)
Having suffered childhood abuse, neglect and lots of interpersonal conflict, the Black Widow is at risk for both mental and physical illness as she ages, the researchers conclude, noting that life’s circumstances and experiences can affect our long-term well-being — especially if it all leads to unhealthy habits or behaviors.
Among her tribulations, the young Romanoff was forcibly sterilized, a trauma linked to a higher risk of everything from osteoporosis and heart disease to depression and dementia, the scientists note.
Iron Man (aka Tony Stark)
Wealth suggests great access to medical care for Tony Stark, and incredible intelligence indicates a reduced risk of dementia.
But this troubled hero battles some pretty serious heart problems, which remain mysterious (having to do with the palladium-powered arc reactor implanted in his chest) such that the scientists can’t make an accurate diagnosis. Meanwhile, the man inside the high-tech suit also suffers post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his near-death experiences, which puts him at greater risk of depression and early mortality.
And though it’s not emphasized in modern Iron Man movies, Stark has a history of engaging in two behaviors that threaten his whole cardiovascular system and his overall health and longevity: smoking and excessive drinking.