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Dr David Weeks conducted the first scientific study of eccentrics. Now. from his base in Edinburgh. he is trying to discover why some people feel or look much younger than they are. Stuart Bathgate. 30 knocking 55. asks him what can be done to delay the ageing process.

Half an hour before we are due to meet. Dr David Weeks telephones the office to confirm that The List are really sending someone to interview him. Once I get to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. where he works in psychogeriatrics. Dr Weeks gives the reason for his caution. ‘l‘ve started to double-check all contacts with the media. Just last week. a man who said he was from the press arranged to see me. Ten minutes into the interview. I realised he was actually an ex-patient of mine.‘ Weeks seems mildly amused rather than perturbed by the incident. As a clinical psychologist. not only is he well accustomed to such aberrant behaviour. he also find it fascinating. His work first came to the attention ofa wider public in 1985. when posters asking ARE YOU AN ECCENTRIC'.’ began to appear in cafes all over Edinburgh. So began his study ofwhat makes someone an eccentric. and what characteristics such people have in common. Weeks‘ new project on the ageing process. begun last November. is more closely related to his day-to-day work for the National Health Service providing psychological care for the over-65s in large chunks of Edinburgh. "I‘here are two strands to the research’. he explains. ‘People who feel younger than their years. and people who look younger. although ofcourse there is some overlap between the

two. I‘ve been trying to get everybody who looks or feels younger than they are to write to me with their own conclusions or speculations about why they are more youthful.‘

Having evidence in abundance from his everyday work that the ageing process is accelerated by Alzheimer's disease and other forms ofdementia. Weeks began to think about the other side of the coin how ageing can be slowed down. Surprisingly. much of his work on eccentrics gave a good indication about which avenues should be explored. ‘One thing we found was that eccentrics are very physically healthy they only saw their doctors about once every nine years. which is just one-eighteenth of the average. They are also very long-lived: we did a study of historical eccentrics from 1550 to 1950. and their average lifespan was 73. whereas you‘d be lucky to find an overall average (if-15 for that period.‘

Weeks ascribes such longevity to the extreme curiosity exhibited by eccentrics. to their having a definite sense ofpurpose in life. ()f the 2()()() letters he has received on ageing since the project began. the most frequent explanation given for feeling youthful is having a diversity of interests. ‘(‘uriosity. enthusiasm. optimism: so far. these seem to be the crucial characteristics.‘

Understandably. regular physical activity is important too 'not compulsive jogging. but just something like taking three one-mile brisk walks a week throughout most of the person's life‘. Most of those studied so far have also had more sexual relationships than average and more marriages. although. says Weeks. when their marriages break up they tend to do so fairly amicably. Having younger spouses and younger peer groups. such as one‘s colleagues at work. is also important.

()ne indisputable factor in the case of post-menopausal women. says Weeks. is hormone replacement


therapy ‘a lot said they felt better than they had done even before the menopause‘. This prompts one to wonder whether people who feel youthful without undergoing such therapy simply have more efficient hormones than is usual. Weeks agrees. but points out that. since the brain has a direct effect on most of the hormones in the body. as. for example. when endorphins a natural painkiller— are released into the body during physical exercise. a person‘s attitude to life. and how they look after themselves. is probably more important than any predisposition to good health. The evidence that if you have long-lived parents you are more likely to be long-lived yourself is far from conclusive.

Weeks himselfexhibits many of the characteristics associated with youthfulness. Exuberant and enthusiastic; he is intensely curious. his conversation ranging from Piaget's theories ofchild education to the sex life of dolphins; and despite his beard and receding hairline. he looks considerably younger than his 43 years.

Although he argues that a scientist should always be sceptical. the driving force behind Weeks” work seems to be his indomitable optimism. his belief that we can shape our own destinies. ‘We know that the maximum human lifespan is about 120‘. he says. ‘yet life expectation here is 73 for men and towards 80 for women. 'l'hat gap shows how little we know about disease and ageing. It‘s perfectly feasible to have a very healthy old age. l'm of the opinion that you can be as healthy at 90 or 100 as you are at 25.‘

Anyone ii'hofee/s or ’ooks younger than they are is asked to write. enelosetng a recent photograph. to Dr David ll'eeks at theJardtne (Write. Royal [idtn/ntrgh. It) .llorningstde [)rii'e. Edinburgh.

Focal Point (If/{(1). Thurs (‘3’. 8.30—9pm. loo/rs at the i'iii])li<'ttti()ri.s ofDr Weeks" work on ageing.

85 The List ‘) 22 March I990