New blood test accurately predicts when people will die — within 5–10 years

The large-scale study got it right for 83 percent of participants. Would you take the blood test?

New blood test accurately predicts when people will die — within 5–10 years
Photo credit: Miguel Bruna on Unsplash
  • A research team found 14 biomarkers can accurately predict death within 5–10 years.
  • Such a test could help doctors and researchers prescribe better courses of treatments for patients.
  • Information about mortality might inspire people to eat better and exercise more, thus reversing the effects of some biomarkers.

Portending the future has long been a preoccupation of our species. Whether fortune or destruction, for millennia our greatest myths foretell wars and romances (which of course are easy to write in hindsight). Still, fortune tellers and astrologers remain in business — we love to pretend we have a futuristic telescope. Even the most mundane of possible activities pique our curiosity.

Some uncover the future in tea leaves, others with yarrow sticks. What about our blood? What if getting routine blood work could clue us in on our end? That's what a team of data scientists from across Europe (with the research based in the Netherlands) are proposing. Their new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, discovered that by measuring 14 metabolic substances they could accurately predict who would die in the coming years.

A broad poll with 44,168 participants and baseline ages from 18–109, data was collected over the course of 17 years. The team, led by Leiden University molecular epidemiologist Eline Slagboom, notes that determining death within a year is basic science at this point. Guessing it from five to 10 years out is a different challenge, one they believe they've started to understand thanks to the constitution of our blood.

Forget Counting Steps. Quantifying Health Will Save Your Life.

Using a "well-standardized metabolomics platform," the team began with 226 metabolic biomakers, discovering 136 that show an association with all-cause mortality. They eventually landed on 14, including blood sugar levels; inflammation markers; HDL, a common cholesterol marker; albumin, a protein produced by your liver that clues you in on kidney or liver problems; acetoacetate, a beta-keto acid normally used to test diabetics for ketoacidosis (as well as monitoring people on ketogenic diets); and isoleucine, an amino acid that can ultimately lead to damaged brain cells and death.

Of the initial population sample, 5,512 died during the testing period. Using the biomarkers for another survey, the team predicted death rates from a participant pool of 7,603 Finnish people initially tested in 1997. They were able to predict with 83 percent accuracy who would die over the five to 10 year period. One caveat: when testing those over 60 years of age, the prediction rate dropped to 72 percent. Another: the pool was entirely comprised of Finns. Extrapolating to apply to the global population raises eyebrows.

Still, given that this test includes popular and broadly applied biomarker tests for cardiovascular, cancer, and inflammation issues, all of which are known causes of mortality regardless of ethnicity, using this blood profile could clue doctors in on the expected longevity of their patients.

While aware of the study's limitations, the team feels it provides a potentially useful platform for determining overall health. As they write,

"The currently used metabolomics platform can be incorporated in ongoing clinical studies to explore its value, opening up new avenues for research to establish the utility of metabolic biomarkers in clinical settings."

Early morning joggers enjoy the wooden paths that go the length of Moonstone Beach next to Moonstone Beach Drive which parallels Highway 1 in northern Cambria, California.

Photo credit: Paul Harris / Getty Images

The question is: do patients want to know? There are two potential problems with such knowledge.

First off, existential dread. Armed with an awareness that death is imminent, the participant could spiral into depression. At the same time, they could also be inspired to live more in the moment and appreciate every day. More importantly, if some of these markers are reversible (such as inflammation or cholesterol markers) they could take action to eat better and exercise more. If it takes the sound of a death rattle to awaken them to their unavoidable mortality, such a test could have positive effects.

The second is insidious though feasible: if insurance companies gain access to these tests, they could refuse or end coverage for those on the brink of death. As the AARP reported last year, the most Medicare dollars are spent in the last year of a person's life. Given how close one political party has come to overturning the pre-existing conditions clause in the Affordable Care Act, this biomarker test could ultimately serve insurance and pharmaceutical companies instead of patients.

Even contemplating such a scenario is tragic, yet that's where we are in America. Fortunately the Netherlands-based team provided this research for more useful ends, such as arming us with a better test for understanding how healthy we actually are and how much we should worry about it. We will all face death, some with more warning than others. Best to use such knowledge to pursue a healthier lifestyle.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

These are the world’s greatest threats in 2021

We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.

Luis Ascui/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.

Keep reading Show less

Columbia study finds new way to extract energy from black holes

A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Surprising Science
  • In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
  • A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
  • The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

A psychiatric diagnosis can be more than an unkind ‘label’

A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.

Scroll down to load more…