Study: Aging well means being more like Black Panther, less like Hulk

Researchers analyzed lifestyles and traits of five Marvel superheroes to suggest how they would age

Marvel’s superheroes are strong, fast and agile. They kind of have to be in order to save the universe — and now the multiverse. But, epic battles aside, are their lifestyles conducive to living a long and healthy life?

“Superheroes are a remarkable cohort whose distinct powers, personalities, behaviours, and life events have been documented in films,” wrote Ruth E. Hubbard, masonic chair of geriatric medicine at the Centre for Health Services Research, University of Queensland. “Most attention focuses on their superpowers and outstanding natural abilities, rather than their ageing.”

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Hubbard and her colleagues examined the personal traits and health behaviors of five Marvel superheroes and what challenges this cohort might experience during aging.

For their study, published Monday in the BMJ, the researchers analyzed 24 Marvel movies released from 2008 (”Iron Man”) to 2021 (”Black Widow”), with concentrated periods during the pandemic lockdown.

They assumed the superheroes will age, and that their individual aging trajectories will be affected by their lifestyles and personality traits, just like everyone else does.

With the exceptions of Spider-Man, who recently graduated from high school, and Thor, who was already about 1,500 years old in “Avengers: Endgame,” most of the superheroes are between 30 and 55 years old. That made it “timely for us to reflect on their health status and associations with ageing trajectories and outcomes,” they wrote.

Although all five superheroes in the study faced health drawbacks, some had positive behaviors or environments that mitigated those negative traits. Here are the researchers’ assessments of each superhero.

Iron Man (Tony Stark)

The good: The “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” is extremely intelligent, which puts him at a reduced risk of dementia. He’s also extremely wealthy with a mostly urban lifestyle that give him easy access to the best health care. He’s also married, which is a check in the healthy aging column.

The bad: The researchers determined Iron Man’s armor prevents his premature death — spoiler alert: It didn’t — but couldn’t definitely say it counteracts his multiple physical injuries and post traumatic stress disorder. “His most concerning characteristic is chronic heart disease, and, not fitting neatly into categories such as heart failure or cardiovascular disease, its impact on death rate and the ageing trajectory is difficult to predict,” they wrote.

It’s all a moot point, of course, because Tony Stark sacrificed himself to defeat Thanos and will never grow old.

Black Panther (King T’Challa)

The good: T’Challa is also extremely intelligent, so he, too, might not have to worry about dementia. He also lives in Wakanda, which is the most economically and technologically advanced country in the world. His status as a monarch is associated with healthy aging and longevity — Queen Elizabeth is 95, after all. He is also a vegetarian, which is associated with reduced obesity and cardiometabolic diseases.

The bad: T’Challa had to ingest a potion to become Black Panther. Although adverse effects of this particular potion are unknown, “performance enhancing drugs in general are linked to increased death rate and a variety of adverse health effects and reduced quality of life.”

Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff)

The good: Natasha Romanoff is fit, but the researchers found nothing that distinguished her from the cohort.

The bad: Being abandoned by her family and trained as an assassin and spy exposed Natasha Romanoff to numerous childhood traumas, including abuse, neglect and interpersonal conflict. These traumas increase her risk of mental illness. She also was forcibly sterilized as a teen. This abrupt cessation of ovarian function at such a young age has been linked to osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression.

The life of a superhero was fatal for the Black Widow, but not for health reasons. She sacrificed herself in “Endgame” to get the soul stone and save humanity.

Spider-Man (Peter Parker)

The good: Although he’s an orphan, which can lead to substance abuse and eating disorders, his relationships with Aunt May and positive male role models among the Avengers could protect him against that fate. Furthermore, Spider-Man’s strength, flexibility and agility should reduce his risk of falling in his old age.

The bad: Between classes during the day and crime fighting at night, Peter Parker likely isn’t getting enough sleep. “Poor sleep in adolescence can lead to obesity, lower mental health, higher levels of pain and fatigue, and higher incidents of unintentional injuries,” the researchers wrote.

Hulk (Bruce Banner)

The good: The researchers found no specific health assets, but Bruce Banner is extremely intelligent, with seven PhDs.

The bad: Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk when he experiences tachycardia — specifically, a heart rate of 200 beats per minute. This happened often enough to suggest a predisposition to cardiac arrhythmias, which might indicate underlying cardiac disease.

The researchers calculated Hulk’s body mass index at around 120. Obesity is associated with a higher death rate as well as dementia, and several chronic health conditions and frailty. Hulk’s BMI also could limit his access to health care. It’s a good thing Bruce Banner was able to combine both his side in “Endgame,” because experiencing almost constant anger could lead to increased inflammation and comorbidity in advanced old age.

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