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.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
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The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
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