Researchers book appointment with death
Scientists say a new blood test can determine how long a life we can expect if we die by natural causes. Do we want to be told when to expect the Grim Reaper?
Death is supposed to be the great leveller. But it seems that even in this final matter some, in the words of George Orwell, are more equal than others.
Scientists have developed a blood test that could identify those who are likely to live longer, and those whose appointment with the Grim Reaper is sooner rather than later – though the date is only pencilled in, since death by natural causes can always be headed off by an accident or sudden serious illness.
It all depends on the length of your telomeres – tiny structures on the end of each chromosome that can identify how rapidly your body is ageing. Telomeres are known to shorten every time a cell divides, so researchers say they can provide better information about life expectancy than our chronological age: they show how much life has been used up. If they are short and ragged damage to the chromosome and DNA is more likely.
The so-called ‘biological age’ test has been used on experimental animals before. But now a group of more than 300 birds on an isolated island in the Seychelles has been tested, and the results confirm that there is ‘clear and unambiguous evidence of a link between telomere length and mortality.’
Short and rapidly shortening telomeres proved to be a good predictor that the birds would die within a small space of time. Those birds with longer telomeres or a slower rate of shortening had extended lifespans.
Of course human animals do not live in controlled conditions like the Seychelles warblers, and many factors affect the length of our lives. Lifestyle and environment, poverty and affluence, happiness and depression: all can affect longevity. But the telomere test homes in on how the relative amounts of damage to each individual because of biological stress can be measured at the molecular level.
At £400 per test, this service is already being marketed to people who want to discover their chances of a long life. But will many want to find out the date of their appointment with death?
In the Christian tradition, reminding the flock that death is inevitable has been one way to encourage good behaviour: fear of punishment or reward in the afterlife was very real when life was short and faith was widespread. Artists enthusiastically took up the theme with ‘vanitas’ paintings.
Now life expectancy is long and fewer people believe in heaven and hell, have we lost our awareness of death, and what is its impact on how we live? What effect would a prediction of imminent death have? If one of us took this test and discovered we had short, ragged edges to our chromosomes, would we think deeply about moral behaviour or try to pack in as much pleasure as possible?
- Would you want to know the likely date of your own death? Why / why not?
- Is it ethical to turn cutting edge research like this into a consumer longevity test?
- Make a ‘bucket list’ of things to achieve before you kick the bucket.
- Look at the art works in the Tate Gallery Memento Mori game and find out about popular symbols of death. Can you make a ‘vanitas’ picture fit for your own times?
Some People Say...
“A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.’ Mark Twain”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Surely I don’t need to worry about this yet!
- I hope not! Life expectancy in England is, on average, 78 for men and 82 for women. But this varies hugely according to behaviour and lifestyle. Not smoking is the most important way to protect your health, along with good eating habits and regular exercise. Do what you can to maximise your chances of being healthy and active for as long as possible, but do not obsess about mortality.
- Irrelevant then?
- Not so fast. Even if you don’t choose to take the test, some are worried about the financial implications of this science. The insurance industry already asks whether you are a smoker before deciding how much you have to pay for cover. What if they start insisting on a telomere test and penalising those with horrible raggedy ends?
- George Orwell
- George Orwell was a famous essayist and novelist who lived between 1903 and 1950. In Animal Farm, his allegory of Communism, the animals rise up against their human oppressors with the slogan ‘all animals are created equal’. But the pigs (who represent the ruling elite) soon take over and declare themselves ‘more equal’ than other animals.
- Sometimes called ‘the building blocks of life’ a person’s DNA is the hereditary material present in every cell. It is composed of a chemical called Deoxyribonucleic acid – hence the name DNA.
- Latin for ‘emptiness’. A tradition in art based on the Bible verse: ‘Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity' (Ecclesiastes 12:8), which means that all human endeavour and worries are nothing when compared to the contemplation of eternity. Art in this tradition is also known as Memento Mori, or a reminder of death.
- Inside each cell’s nucleus a molecule of DNA is packed with protein into criss-cross threads called chromosomes. As cells divide for the organism to grow and replenish, the telomeres on the chromosomes shorten.