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Fact/Fiction: Does playing golf as a pensioner extend your life?

Old news, truthfully retold. Is teeing off really the key to longevity? We establish the truth

HOW IT WAS TOLD

Surely golf must be great for people in their twilight years? It’s certainly good enough for Donald Trump.

The US president is 73 and he has made his way around 18-hole golf courses 261 times during his three years at the White House, according to Golf News Net, which has kept count of Trump’s golf trips up until February 2.

Headlines last week suggested that Trump has the right idea.

A flurry of stories championed an academic study by Zeenat Qureshi Stroke Institute that spoke of the health benefits of playing golf if you are over 65. However, the story was reported differently by the UK media outlets that featured it.

The Herald’s report kept it simple with the headline: “Over-65s who play golf ‘live longer’, finds study”.

The Daily Express took a similar view with its own version: “How to live longer: Do this sport in later life to increase your life expectancy”.

Mail Online upped the ante. It went for: “Play golf to avoid an early grave! Scientists find players of the sport face HALF the risk of a premature death because ‘it helps alleviate stress’”.

And then The Sun talked up golf’s lifesaving qualities too, albeit for one gender. Its article – headlined “HOLE IN ONE. How a golfing weekend once a month really could save your man’s life” – claimed that golfers are nearly 40 per cent less likely to die young.

But are these stories driving down the fairway or nestling in the rough?

FACTS. CHECKED

While there is a clear consensus that physical activity does boost health, the preliminary research upon which these stories are based isn’t the iron-clad proof that some of the stories suggest.

In the study, researchers analysed the data gathered by the Cardiovascular Health Study, an observational study tracking heart disease and stroke risk factors in adults aged 65 and older. The information was drawn from extensive annual clinical exams and six-monthly clinic visits between 1989 and 1999. After 1999, researchers contacted patients by phone to ask about occurrences of strokes and heart attacks.

It was a large-scale study with 5,900 participants with an average age of 72, from which academics identified 384 golfers, consisting of 160 men and 224 women. This calls into question The Sun’s male-focused headline – the study predominantly dealt with golfers who were women, with someone who played golf at least once a month considered a regular golfer.

The results showed that 8.1 per cent of golfers had suffered strokes while 9.8 per cent experienced heart attacks. The Sun and Mail Online’s percentage claims – that nearly40 per cent and half of golfers respectively are less likely to die prematurely – come from the next set of results. Researchers found a significantly lower rate of death among golfers compared to non-golfers – 15.1 per cent compared to24.6 per cent.

But the question is: does golf really explain this?

The researchers themselves acknowledge that they were “unable to determine if golfing had a direct impact on lowering risk of heart attack or stroke” or even if “golfers actually walked around the course or used a golf buggy”. They are currently carrying out additional analyses to identify what other health conditions can be improved by playing golf, as well as whether gender and race has any effect.

But all this study really shows is an association between playing golf and a reduction in strokes and heart attacks, it doesn’t consider other factors. For example, with equipment to buy, membership fees and other costs, golf tends to attract a more affluent player-base and this could impact on results.

So while it is certainly a useful study, and a round of golf won’t hurt, the science backing up claims that it will help you live longer is just teeing off.

Image: Miles Cole

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