The new test unlocking the secrets of death

No bones about it: Around 68% of us are scared of death, but only 20% are comfortable talking about it.

Would you want to know when you are going to die? Scientists have developed a test that can tell how fast your body is ageing. Some think facing death is the key to living a meaningful life.

Time to pursue that bucket list? Scientists at Yale University have developed a blood test that uses nine biomarkers to measure how fast a human body is deteriorating.

Among 50 to 64-year-olds, a quarter of those found to be ageing fastest died over the next 10 years, compared with only a fifth of the slowest ageing 65 to 84-year-olds. It can even predict the varying risks of death in healthy people before any diseases develop.

Doctors hope it can encourage positive lifestyle changes.

While the science is in its early stages, the test presents an interesting dilemma: if you could find out when your time will be up, would you want to know?

Death remains a taboo subject for many. While 68% of us fear death and a third think about it at least once a week, studies show 80% of Britons are uncomfortable talking about it with their family and friends.

It has not always been this way. “Keep the prospect of death, exile and all such apparent tragedies before you every day,” was the lesson of stoic philosopher Epictetus. The stoics believed knowledge of death can make us live better while we are here.

This idea is having a resurgence. The last 10 years have seen a boom in death cafés, where people can talk to strangers about death to help reckon with mortality and live a fuller life.

And the evidence is growing that those facing death head-on are happier. Researchers compared blog posts written by the terminally ill with those of healthy people asked to imagine they were dying.

Those written by the dying were resoundingly more positive, with a greater focus on meaningful topics such as family and religion. “Death,” they concluded, “is inevitable, but dread isn’t”.

On the other hand, some palliative carers talk about people getting an “existential slap” when they first face the reality of death. The initial shock when told you do not have long left can be so severe that it can lead to permanent psychological problems.

But humans are adaptable, and the carers claim most patients are likely to have “a greater appreciation for the life that remains” when the crisis turns into acceptance.

Would you want to know when you are going to die?

Final countdown

No way, say some. We’d spend the rest of our lives paralysed by fear or trying desperately to avoid the preordained moment. Besides, we might get hit by a bus tomorrow. Life is unpredictable and taking each moment as it comes allows us to focus on the present.

Absolutely, say others. People who have had near-death experiences often talk about being liberated from fear of failure. Every day we live in denial. Concrete knowledge of death would encourage us to seize our remaining time and live richer, more meaningful lives.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to find out exactly when you are going to die?
  2. If you found out you were going to die a year from now, how would you spend your remaining time?

Activities

  1. Write a short paragraph on how old you want to be when you die and what you want to achieve.
  2. Imagine you have been given only two years to live. Write a page about what you would do. Now imagine you have been given only one day to live. Write another page about what you would do on your last day. Consider what the two pages tell you about yourself and your priorities.

Some People Say...

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.”

Ernest Becker

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
To create the test, scientists looked at 42 different clinical measures, such as white blood cell count and blood pressure, alongside the medical records and death records relating to 21,000 people between 1988 and 2010. They found that factors that speed up ageing include growing up in a deprived neighbourhood, poor education and chronic stress, as well as lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity. It is hoped the test will encourage people to make positive lifestyle changes.
What do we not know?
Whether science will ever advance to provide accurate death projections or whether we’d want to know. Even studies that seem to show that dying people are happier might not be accurate as the respondents could be putting on a brave face for the sake of those left behind.

Word Watch

Biomarkers
A substance introduced into a person’s body that can be used to test organ function and other aspects of health.
68% of us fear death
According to a 2017 study by the Dying Matters Coalition.
80% of Britons
A 2014 study by YouGov found eight in 10 Brits are not comfortable speaking about death.
Stoics
A school of ancient Greek philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC. Nowadays the term “stoic” refers to someone who can endure hardship without complaining.
More positive
The language continued to grow more positive the nearer the person got to death.
Palliative carers
Specialised carers to provide relief from symptoms and stress for those approaching the end of their life.