This amazing breakthrough made the news less than a month ago, and it got me thinking what might change if this were standard practice in clinics and doctors rooms.
In case you missed the news when it broke, it looks a little like this: researchers in Estonia took blood from nearly 10 000 people over 5 years, and looked for any chemical compounds or proteins (called biomarkers) that showed up regularly in people that died soon afterward. Lo and behold, the presence of 4 specific biomarkers strongly predicted death within 5 years. The researchers were so surprised that they promptly enlisted the help of collaborators in Finland. This group did the same thing with more than 7000 people, with the exact same results. (Sidebar for those that didn’t study stats: numbers are important. The number of people tested, called sample size, is a really easy way to be sure about any given experiment or test – the larger the sample is, the stronger the conclusions you can reach are. That means that it’s very difficult to argue against the findings of this paper.) For those that are interested, this approach has been tried before, with far less success.
In real-life terms, this means that a regular blood test can tell you that something is severely wrong with your body before any obvious symptoms appear. Now imagine for a second that this was instituted as an obligatory health check, once a year, for every adult. You can put it on government’s tab as a public health service, thanks…
The most obvious and major effect of this would be on personal health, of course. These biomarkers are associated mostly with cardiovascular diseases and cancer, which are pretty difficult to spot, never mind prevent. This will provide an early warning system that doctors could then follow up with more in-depth investigations and possibly even treat any looming problems. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether treatment and prevention measures will have an effect on this likelihood of dying. I think that in the next few years, there will be a rush to investigate these markers in as much detail as possible. Overall, I think that we could reasonably expect this discovery to indirectly extend healthy years of life.
The next major issue we could call mental/ethical. What would it do to a persons mental state, to be told they have five years to live? It’s not to say that they are guaranteed to die, just that it is statistically likely to be the case. This introduces a range of ethical challenges for doctors and patients – doctors will have an obligation to adequately inform their patients and manage the patients’ response to the news. Not easy. It’s not clear cut how individuals would respond – much like getting news of, say, terminal cancer, the response very much depends on the person. Some might fall into a malaise, while others (cancer patient Lisa Adams comes to mind) will live life to the fullest while they still can. I would like to think that the test might offer hope to catch a disease before it’s too late, or at the very least, allow you to put your affairs in order and enjoy your time with friends and family while you still can.
The last aspect I’d like to consider is a what influence this will have on our society as a whole. I imagine that insurance companies will very quickly make this test standard practice – it’s just the kind of solid risk indicator that these companies love. And I hope that governments follow suit, as I suggested above. Another aspect to consider: we know that western societies don’t deal very well with death in general, and we don’t have much of a culture surrounding grieving and loss of loved ones. But, much like death in the digital age, this breakthrough will force us as a society to confront death a little more directly. Whether or not that is a good thing, I will leave to you to decide.