Scientists use questions on smoking, how briskly you walk and how many cars you own to find your risk of death
If you are a middle-aged man and want to know if you are going to die in the next five years, you simply need to ask yourself how healthy you think you are.
Whether you would rate your health as excellent, good, fair or poor is a better predictor of death in the next five years for men aged 40 to 70 than physical measures including blood pressure and pulse rate, according to scientists writing in the Lancet medical journal. Other significant questions include how briskly you walk and how many cars you own.
The first major publication from scientists using data from the UK Biobank scores 655 different measures that can affect the chances of premature death. The researchers have used this to put together a short questionnaire. Just 13 questions for men and 11 for women will produce a percentage risk factor for death within five years.
While self-assessed health is the strongest risk factor for men, the strongest for women is any diagnosis of cancer, which is the biggest cause of women’s death in this age group. For people of both sexes who do not have any serious disease or disorder, smoking is the most significant factor.
The website, called Ubble (for UK Longevity Explorer), also tells people their “Ubble age”. If their Ubble age is lower than their real age, then their risk of early death is also low. If it is higher, say researchers, people might like to think about making possible improvements to their health such as stopping smoking and a better diet. The website has been designed with the help of the charity Sense About Science.
The death rates in the 40-70 age group are low. Among the nearly 500,000 Biobank participants, 8,352 died over a five-year period – fewer than 2%. There are no questions about weight or body mass index because they will not impact mortality over a five-year period. The researchers found that how many cars a household owned was a factor, however – because more cars indicated a more affluent family. Walking briskly was more obviously an indicator of better health.
The scientists, Professor Erik Ingelsson from Uppsala University and Dr Andrea Ganna from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, have also put their more detailed findings about the 655 significant measures on the website.
Ganna said that people should not assume their prediction is set in stone. “The fact that the score can be measured online in a brief questionnaire, without any need for lab tests or physical examination, is an exciting development. 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,” he said.
“Of course, the score has a degree of uncertainty and shouldn’t be seen as a deterministic prediction. For most people, a high risk of dying in the next five years can be reduced by increased physical activity, smoking cessation, and a healthy diet.”
Simon Thompson and Peter Willeit from the University of Cambridge point out in a linked comment in the journal that the questionnaire may be appealingly simple but it reveals nothing about people’s long-term life expectancy or their likely quality of life. “Whether this will help individuals improve self-awareness of their health status, however, or only lead to so-called cyberchondria, is a moot point,” they write.
Some 500,000 people have volunteered their medical history to Biobank and provided blood, urine and saliva samples. Their health will be tracked for the rest of their lives so that researchers can learn more about diseases and work towards cures.
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