Can This Test Predict Your Risk of Dying by 2020?

By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

June 4, 2015 -- An online test may accurately predict your risk of dying before the end of this decade if you're between 40 and 70 years old, the scientists who created it say. The research about it is published in The Lancet.

The exam is aimed at users in the United Kingdom, but you can access it here. Its accuracy for people in countries outside the U.K. is unknown, according to the web site.

Test-takers answer "a simple set of a dozen or so questions" with a click of the mouse and receive their chances of dying within the next 5 years, says study co-author Professor Erik Ingelsson from Uppsala University in Sweden.

The test gives the user their "Ubble age." That's the age where the average risk of dying (if you're living in the U.K.) most closely matches the estimated risk for the person taking the test. Ubble stands for UK Longevity Explorer, and the scientists who invented it claim it is 80% accurate.

This is the first study of its kind that is based on a very large number of people, Ingelsson says. But some experts are questioning how much of a useful tool the test really is.

How It Makes Its Predictions

To create a test-taker's death risk score, Ingelsson and Dr. Andrea Ganna, from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, analyzed data collected between 2006 and 2010 from records in the UK Biobank of nearly half a million adults between the ages of 40 and 70.

They then calculated which health and lifestyle factors most accurately indicate the chances of dying in the short term.

They found that self-reported information, such as usual walking pace, illness, and injuries in the past 2 years, is generally more reliable at predicting the risk of death or survival than biological tests of things like pulse rate and blood pressure.

Walking pace, assessed as "slow," "steady," or "brisk," is a stronger predictor of death risk in both men and women than smoking habits and other lifestyle measurements, the scientists says. How people rated their own health was the single most powerful predictor of death in men, while a previous cancer diagnosis was the strongest predictor in women. When the researchers excluded people with serious diseases or disorders, smoking habits emerged as the most reliable predictor of whether someone would die from any cause.

Using these findings, the researchers then created a risk-score system based on 13 questions for men and 11 for women.

Some questions also ask for information about how many people live in the user's household, the number of cars the person has, and whether he or she has ever had depression.

The accuracy of the test was confirmed using 35,810 people enrolled at 2 Scottish locations, which were not used to develop the score.

"We hope that our score might eventually enable doctors to quickly and easily identify their highest-risk patients, although more research will be needed to determine whether it can be used in this way in a clinical setting," Ganna says.

"Of course, the score has a degree of uncertainty," he says.

Most people with a purportedly high risk of dying in the next 5 years can do things to lower that risk, he says: Get more exercise, eat a healthy diet, and if you smoke, quit.

Second Opinion

Other experts aren't so confident in the test.

"Most of the predictive factors do not directly cause disease, and even where they do, few are under the control of the individual," says David Coggon, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Southampton.

"The authors suggest that knowing one is at higher risk may be an incentive to changes in lifestyle, but experience with smoking and obesity suggests that knowledge of increased risk has only limited impact on most people's behaviors."

Simon Thompson and Peter Willeit from the University of Cambridge also have their doubts about the test. Writing in the same edition of The Lancet, they say that "five-year mortality is easier to predict than long-term morbidity, or quality of life and life expectancy, all of which are more important to individuals and to society."

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SOURCES: Ganna, A. The Lancet, June 2015. Willeit, P. Comment, The Lancet, June 2015. Science Media Centre.

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