We are all going to die! This is life’s only certainty. What is uncertain, is when, why and how. Perhaps one of the most morbid aspects of death is the uncertainty surrounding it.
To remove some of the mystery around dying, researchers have been trying to perfect a blood test that will give an accurate insight into how long a person is likely to live.
More specifically, the tests gauge how healthy a person is and therefore how vulnerable they might be to major mortality risk factors.
The research was led by Joris Deelen, postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Biology of Aging and P. Eline Slagboom, head of molecular epidemiology at Leiden University Medical Center.
They are hoping that, in the future, tests like this will be able to warn people who are at risk of premature death so that they are able to change their behaviour and live longer.
“If the blood test tells you how long you’ll live – and your family see that and you change your lifestyle – you could live twice as long,” says Deelen.
They released their new findings in a paper published in Nature Communications, reporting that, in a group of more than 44,000 healthy patients, their blood test was around 80% accurate in predicting mortality risk within five to 10 years.
Patients included in the study ranged in age from 18 to 109 years. Over 16 years they provided blood samples and had their health events tracked and monitored.
The researchers analyzed a group of 226 metabolic biomarkers, or by-products of things that various cells and tissues in the body transfer into the bloodstream for circulation and removal.
The team then narrowed these down to 14 biomarkers in the blood that appear to directly affect the risk of death, including immunity, glucose control, inflammation, fluid balance and circulating fat.
First tests sought to investigate the more conventional factors of death, such as the subjects’ BMI, blood pressure and whether or not they smoked.
Follow-up tests over the next 2 to 16 years found that more than 5,512 of the participants had died.
The new test had predicted their risk of death with 83 per cent accuracy – better than the 79 per cent accuracy of current tests.
“These biomarkers clearly improve risk prediction of five and 10-year mortality as compared to conventional risk factors across all ages,” the researchers write.
“These results suggest that metabolic biomarker profiling could potentially be used to guide patient care, if further validated in relevant clinical settings.”
An exciting step, but not ready yet.
The researchers have stressed that while they are making great strides in the right direction for accurately predicting when a person may die, the tests are not yet ready for doctors to use.
They believe that the tests could be most useful in older patients and guiding treatment decisions for them seeing as many of the biomarkers reflect common symptoms of ageing.
It’s also worth noting that the research only involved participants from a European background, so the findings may not be reliable in predicting the future health of people with different ethnicities.
The researchers also acknowledge that the 14 biomarkers they are working with currently are “only a fraction of the metabolites in the human serum.” Future efforts will aim to provide a more robust selection of metabolites.
They are also hoping to work with large databanks around the world to further validate the findings.
“We want to tackle the vulnerability of people’s health that is hidden and that doctors cannot see from the outside,” says Slagboom.
“I am still surprised by the fact that in a group of people you can take one blood sample at one point of time in their life, and that would say anything meaningful about their five to 10 year mortality risk.”