Richard G. Petty, MD

The Four Percent Solution

In this week’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is a study of 11,701 American over the age of 50, who participated in a national health survey in 1998 funded by the National Institute on Aging. The researchers analyzed participants’ outcomes during a four- year follow-up and examined the health characteristics that seemed to predict death within four years.

These were the questions that were asked, and this is a bit like golf: you want to have the lowest score possible. Zero would be best. The score is supposed to tell you your chance of dying within the next four years.

1. Age: 60-64 years old = 1 point; 65-69 = 2 points; 70-74 = 3 points; 75-79 = 4 points; 80-84 = 5 points; 85 and older = 7 points.

2. Male or Female: Male = 2 points.

3. Body-Mass Index: Less than 25 (normal weight or less) = 1 point. (BMI = weight in pounds divided by height in inches squared, multiplied by 703.)

4. Diabetes: 2 points.

5. Cancer (excluding minor skin cancers): 2 points.

6. Chronic lung disease that limits activities or requires oxygen use at home: 2 points.

7. Congestive heart failure: 2 points.

8. Cigarette smoking in the past week: 2 points.

9. Difficulty bathing/showering because of a health or memory problem: 2 points.

10. Difficulty managing money, paying bills, keeping track of expenses because of a health or memory problem: 2 points.

11. Difficulty walking several blocks because of a health problem: 2 points.

12. Difficulty pushing or pulling large objects like a living room chair because of a health problem: 1 point.


  • 0 to 5 points = less than a 4 percent risk of dying;
  • 6-9 points = 15 percent risk;
  • 10-13 points = 42 percent risk;
  • 14 or more points = 64 percent risk.

So what should we make of this?

The first thing is that the study is just looking at the physical aspect of life. It asks nothing about diet or family history. It also says nothing about psychological and spiritual factors that can buttress health and well-being.

So what should it mean if somebody gets a high score? Does it mean that they should expect the end and stop reading long novels? Absolutely not! A high score should be a very good indicator that you should have a talk with your health care provider and get to work on all the reversible factors on the list. And as I have pointed out before, a positive psychological outlook and regular spiritual practice have been shown to extend the length and quality of your life.

It is not given to us to know the length of our lives and plenty of people live on and on despite breaking all the rules while others die young despite a lifetime of temperance. I had an aunt who smoked heavily throughout her adult life, yet lived to be well over ninety, while one of my former students died of lung cancer in his thirties, having never smoked a single cigarette.

Genes and lifestyle are important in determining our life span, but so are the quality and integrity of our relationships, our own sense of meaning and purpose, the clarity of the subtle systems of the body and our spirituality.

So use this study not as a death sentence, but as a wake-up call.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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