Do they take secret pills? Or just follow their own advice?looks at why doctors tend to live longer than the rest of us

Fat butchers, rich lawyers, healthy doctors: each is an advertisement for their own success. It isn't hard to guess why the lawyer and the butcher look so prosperous. But do doctors take their own advice? Do they benefit from inside knowledge?

Fat butchers, rich lawyers, healthy doctors: each is an advertisement for their own success. It isn't hard to guess why the lawyer and the butcher look so prosperous. But do doctors take their own advice? Do they benefit from inside knowledge?

Overall, death rates among doctors corrected for age are less than half that of the general population, despite some medical specialities having particular risks. Probably due to the ready availability of lethal drugs, anaesthetists are particularly at risk from suicide and cirrhosis, and for some reason, psychiatrists from bowel cancer. The incidence of alcoholism and drug addiction is said to be higher than average, but overall doctors are less likely to die young than the rest of the population.

Why? After all, loads of doctors smoke. That is the defence put up by many a seasoned puffer in the Great Saloon Bar of Life. Sadly for the tap-room statistician, his claim is just not true. The most accurate recent figures suggest that 4 per cent of women doctors do so, and 9 per cent of men. This compares to 28 per cent of the population at large. The figures among doctors decline steeply with age. Up to 20 per cent of students indulge in the evil habit at medical school. Trainee doctors are probably aware of the evidence from Sir Richard Doll, father of studies on smoking, that giving up before middle-age leaves you with no increased risk of early death.

While we're still in the saloon bar, how about booze? The definition of an alcoholic is famously someone who drinks more than their doctor. Despite the weak joke, there is concern about alcoholism within the medical profession. However, the figures show that despite the traditional image of the hard-drinking medical student, true alcoholism and alcoholic liver disease are only marginally more common. One (small, unconfirmed) study has suggested that the higher figures for doctors with a drink problem relates to a particularly hard-living band of over-45s in Scotland.

Of course, in moderation alcohol is now believed to carry some health benefits - which follow a U-shaped curve, ie drinking nothing is less healthy than moderate tippling which is healthier than doing it large. Some newspaper doctors - notably Dr Tom Stuttaford in The Times - make much of this, knowing how popular it can be with their readers. The suggestion is that without alcohol you might not live to be 100, but it might feel like it.

Aside from cutting down on fags and booze, is there a wonder-drug that the quacks are keeping to themselves in a secret bid for immortality? Aspirin has been hailed by many as that miracle nostrum. This commonplace, ancient and cheap derivative of the willow-tree prevents heart attacks and strokes, and possibly even cancer. So do doctors pop an aspro a day to keep themselves away?

The answer is probably no - there is no evidence that doctors prescribe themselves aspirin any more than anyone else. This is despite the medical adage "Paracetamol for a patient, aspirin for a doctor" (aspirin has more potential side-effects but is said to be more effective for headaches). There is a good reason for this - a study has shown that there is no particular benefit to healthy people from taking daily aspirin. The study was especially relevant as it was performed on a group of doctors.

One treatment that is favoured by large numbers of female doctors is hormone replacement therapy. This reduces the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease, as well as making women feel better and maintaining their libido. Women doctors are particularly keen on it for themselves - up to 55 per cent take it compared to less than 10 per cent of women at large. Here is a genuine example of doctors taking something that most post-menopausal women probably ought to, despite a slight statistical increased risk of breast cancer.

Women doctors prefer elective caesareans, too. One small study has shown the incidence among doctors to be more than twice that of lay women. Over 30 per cent of women obstetricians choose this method for their own births. The most frequent reason is worry about lasting damage to the anatomy of the pelvis and possible sexual problems after a vaginal birth.

In the final analysis, the reason that doctors live longer than the rest of the population probably has very little to do with following their own advice. With the exceptions of giving up smoking, eating healthily, doing a bit of exercise and reducing excessive drinking, very few medical treatments have seriously been shown to have any major effect on health and longevity among the otherwise well. What does make a difference is what your parents died of, and how wealthy you are.

Sadly, despite all the millions spent by drug companies every year, there is no miracle drug, no elixir of eternal life that doctors are hiding from us. If there were, I would be the first to let you know, and the first to prescribe it to myself, whatever the cost of the private prescription.