Remember in Back to the Future when Marty McFly desperately tried to warn the 1955 Doc Emmett Brown that in 1985, Doc was to be gunned down by Libyan terrorists? Doc insists that he doesn’t want to know about the future. How about you? Would you want know in advance when you are going to die? Whether you do or don’t, the fact is no one can tell you that for sure anyway. But new research out of the UK can tell you the chances you’ll still be alive in five years based on your answers to some very simple questions.
A very big study
The first thing to tell you about this research is that it strictly applies only for people between the ages of 40 and 70 living in the UK. But it seems likely to me that this research will still shed some light on life expectancy for those of us aged between 40 and 70 living in Australia.
According to the researchers it is likely that the prediction works fairly well in countries that are similar to the UK in terms of distribution of demographic and socioeconomic factors, provision of healthcare and lifestyle and risk factor distribution.
The UK Biobank study collected very detailed health information (655 different measurements) from almost 500,000 people. Now that’s a decent sample size! The researchers followed these people for five years. At the end of that period, knowing who had died and who was still alive, they could calculate which health measures best predicted death within the five-year period.
The health data the researchers collected included blood tests, memory and reaction time tests, physical activity, diet, occupation, as well as personal and family histories of disease.
Of course what they found can’t tell you anything about your personal risk of dying, nor does the research say that a particular health measure causes death. It simply correlates certain health factors with the chances of dying in the next five years. And because they collected data from half a million people in their study, the researchers can be pretty confident about their findings.
What are the strongest predictors?
Somewhat unexpectedly, the factors that most accurately predict death within five years can be determined by answering a small number of simple questions by survey. There was no medical examination needed.
But the strongest predictor of whether you’ll still be alive in five years differs for women and men. Starting with women, the strongest predictor of death is a previous diagnosis of cancer. The second strongest predictor is whether a woman had experienced serious illness or injury in the previous two years.
Interestingly, for men it is a self-assessment of a man’s own health. Men are asked “in general how would you rate your overall health?’ The next strongest predictor was whether the man receives a disability allowance.
When the researchers only included people with no major diseases, smoking habits predicted death within five years for both women and men best.
How fast do you walk?
The researchers have created the Ubble online Association Explorer (Ubble is short for UK Longevity Explorer). The Explorer is an interactive graph allowing you to see the importance of each of the health factors the researchers looked at. The Explorer shows how good each health measure is at predicting death within five years. The graphs are separate for men and women because different factors were better predictors of mortality in the two sexes.
The graphs show each factor’s C-index, a measurement of how well that factor predicts death within five years. The higher the C-index, the more accurate the predictive ability.
Beyond the two strongest predictors for each sex, there are other fascinating findings. Both men and womens’ self-assessed walking pace (slow, steady or brisk) predicts death within five years. Other important factors for women are how many children she has given birth to, whether she smokes tobacco now (or did in the past), how she rates her overall health, whether she has any long-standing illness and whether she receives a disability allowance.
For men other significant questions are how many cars he owns or has the use of (presumably this is a proxy for socio-economic status), how many people live in his household and how those people are related, current and past smoking habits, diabetes, and previous diagnosis of cancer, heart attack, stroke or high blood pressure.
Calculating your risk
To calculate your own risk, simply go to the Risk Calculator and answer 13 questions if you’re male and 11 questions if you’re female. You will be told your percentage risk of dying in the next five years and also be given your “Ubble age’.
If your Ubble age is lower than your real age, your risk of early death is low. And how about if your Ubble age is higher than your real age? The researchers hope these results will help people to become more aware of their own health and make positive changes to their habits.
I’m happy to report my risk of dying within five years is 0.1% and my Ubble age is 24. As a 40-year old, I reckon I can live with those odds.
Links and stuff
- Ubble Risk calculator
- Ubble Association Explorer
- The original research paper
- Piece in the Conversation about this research
Radio on demand
This post accompanies a radio segment on Triple R’s Breakfasters program on Wednesday 10 June 2015.
Loved your segment this morning, Dr Jen, though not too happy with the results of my Risk Calculation (you did warn us).
Thanks for listening Michael. Sorry to hear you weren’t happy. The researchers argue it’s not about feeling worried but about making positive changes!! What do you think?
Since we’re sharing stats – I’m 46 with an bubble of 35 and 0.4% chance. Phew! I was a bit hesitant taking that, I think I’m with the Doc on not wanting to know
Nice one and yes I hear you, I felt the same way. But once you know it’s there, it’s hard NOT to find out!