A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do left-handers die young?

August 9, 1996

Dear Cecil:

What is the connection between handedness and death? I have heard that statistically lefties are more accident-prone and die earlier. I'm a lefty, and I'm getting scared. Does it work like smoking — if I quit now will my stats improve? Thank goodness the insurance companies don't ask, but I'll bet my life-insurance agent watched carefully as I signed my policy.

Cecil replies:

I feel your pain, brother — I'm left-handed too. So were all the major candidates in the last two presidential elections, assuming your idea of major is Bush, Clinton, Dole, and Perot (though I suppose Dole's war injury makes him a special case). Five of the last ten U.S. presidents have been left-handed, although lefties account for only 10 percent of the population.

Obviously we have a gift for leadership. The only problem is a lot of us don't live long enough to use it. At any rate that's the thesis of psychologist Stanley Coren, the man largely responsible for changing the image of lefties from lovable klutzes to doomed race. Coren's 1992 book The Left-Hander Syndrome argued that for a variety of reasons, ranging from less immunity to disease to a higher accident rate, lefties didn't live as long as righties. Based on a survey of the relatives of a thousand recently deceased people in California, Coren claimed that the average lefty died nine years sooner than the average righty (66 versus 75).

Many scoffed at this, the chief objection being that the life-expectancy gap was implausibly large — larger even than the gap between smokers and nonsmokers. Insurance-company actuarial departments would have to have been in a coma not to have noticed a difference this huge before now.

Other research has failed to substantiate Coren's claim, finding either a much smaller difference in life expectancy or no difference at all. Coren's own previous study of baseball players' life spans (drawn, charmingly enough, from the Baseball Encyclopedia) found only an eight-month gap, and even that has been vigorously disputed.

Coren now seems to have conceded that the nine-year gap may be a little off. A study of British cricket players found a two-year gap, which he's described as reasonable.

Still, even a two-year gap is sizable. If it turns out to be legit, you wouldn't be surprised to find life-insurance applications with "left-handed" on the risk-factor checkoff list right after "smokes" and "does drugs."

So we're left to ponder the question: Can this be, pardon the expression, right?

A lot of people say no way. If Coren's research shows that relatively few old people are left-handed, they argue, that's because lefties in the old days were forced to convert, like medieval Jews.

Me? I'm not so sure. As a general proposition no one doubts that lefties differ in fundamental ways from righties.

There's a fair amount of evidence that left-handedness is caused by minor brain damage at birth (though there seems to be a genetic component as well). Possibly as a result, lefties are clumsier if perhaps also more creative.

Looking through the medical literature, I find studies reporting that lefties have a higher accident rate, are more likely to have their fingers amputated due to power-tool accidents, suffer more wrist fractures, etc. What's more, lefties suffer a higher incidence of allergies, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and certain learning disabilities.

Lefties, a 1992 article in the Atlantic notes, also show unusually high frequencies of depression, drug abuse, bed-wetting, attempted suicide, lower-than-normal birth weight, sleeping disorders, and autoimmune diseases.

Not to mention the fact that, as we've already seen, they have a significantly greater danger of becoming U.S. president. If that won't take years off your life, I don't know what will. My advice to fellow southpaws: keep your head low, avoid power tools, and never, ever accept a convention draft.

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