A simple blood test may soon be able to tell you how long you will live. Just roll up your sleeve, ready for a nurse to take a syringe-full of blood for testing. The blood will be examined for biomarkers. Fourteen of them. Then, a laboratory will tell you, with 83% accuracy, when you will die.
Now, we’ll come back to the accuracy in a moment, but why would anybody want to know when they’re going to die?
Last year, I happened on an actuarial website that purported to tell me my exit date and I didn’t have to give them any blood from or be bored about biomarkers. The website just asked questions and I just answered them.
So I tried it, if only to frustrate those trackers trying to work out what they can sell me. Unless they wanted to sell me a coffin, all their efforts were going to be for nought. Indeed, even if coffin-selling was their trade, they were out of luck, because I do not care what I get buried in.
If it was legal, I’d be happy to be put in the brown bin with the food waste.
I’ll be dead when it happens. Why should I care?
Anyway, this website asked when I was born, what age my parents were when they died, and what awful diseases they had passed on to me.
I tell a lie. They didn’t ask me to specify the diseases, just asked if I was in line for any inherited nasties, which I am. I thought they should care more about the type of disease.
I mean, being lined up for heart attacks, which I am not, has more implications for longevity than inheriting eczema, which I am lined up for. You can’t scratch yourself to death.
On the other hand, I didn’t have to mention the possibility of inheriting the tendency of a grand-aunt of mine. She was a flasher. Oh, the shame.
Thus far, let me assure you, I don’t take after her in any respect, but you never know the day nor the hour.
Not that flashing shortens your life.
I was honest with the questionnaire, and it returned the compliment. Beat around the bush of my mortality it did not. I was going to snuff it, the site told me, in June 2019. It told me how many months, weeks, and days that would be. It even had a little timer that told me precisely how many minutes and seconds I had, the seconds eroding like the numbers on the millennial clock in the Liffey (which none of us could read, because the river was too dirty).
The website advised me that I might like to share the news of my imminent demise with those close to me. But I didn’t want to get their hopes up and, as it turned out, I was right, because here I am, this August Monday morning in 2019, not dead.
Or perhaps, in the interests of journalistic accuracy, I should say that I was alive when I emailed this column to the Irish Examiner, but cannot guarantee that, as you read this, I still am.
The blood test is a more scientific way of finding out much the same data about your date of death, but it’s not as confident as the online predicting machine.
The promise is that, within a few years, a blood test might be able to predict your death to within five or ten years.
The researchers involved, Dr Joris Deelen, of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Ageing in Cologne, and Professor Elaine Slagboom, from the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, followed 44,168 people, aged 18 to 109, over a few years, noting those who died. They also measured 14 biomarkers — chemicals in the blood related to the processing of fats and sugars — and checked inflammation levels. They pointed out that if, in the future, this blood test comes to pass, it may lead to life-saving behaviour change. In other words, if it indicates to Joe Bloggs that he’s going to fall over and die on the first Tuesday of August, 2023, Joe Bloggs, filled with terror at the prospect, may mend his ways, quit the fags, lose five stone, and pass on his plan to climb Mount Everest. This might enable him to cheat the 14 markers and live longer.
However, the point being virtuously made by the scientists is that knowing your death date might radically improve your lifestyle.
Doubtful. Imagine you’re 18 and the blood test shows you at the exit gate when you’re 60. That might disturb you a little, if you’re a teenager who might expect to live to be well over 100.
But that’s a long, long way away, and right now, in the present, that packet of cigarettes is just egging to be smoked; and not smoking the fags, to live into an unimaginable old age, seems silly.
The mystifying thing is why the prospect of such a blood test so excites people, and it really does. Mention it and someone will tell you they’d love to know when they’re going to die, because they could stop worrying about pension funding.
This slightly misses the point that if their blood test predicts they’ll live to be 109, their pension funding worries will be exacerbated, rather than assuaged. Some like the idea of a departure date because they feel it gives them more control. But what about that great grey cloud of impending nothingness?
The fact is that, while, intellectually, every one of us knows that we have that appointment in Samarra, each of us secretly believes that an exception will be made in our case. Knowing, to within a couple of months, the inescapability of our death would surely turn it into an unwelcome, daily threat.
Anyway, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, long ago, summed it all up in song, without recourse to biomarkers: “And always remember, the longer you live, the sooner you’ll bloody well die.”
The promise is that, within a few years, a blood test might predict your death to within five or ten years