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Will You Live Another Five Years?

Of course you might not want to know the answer to that. Or, having worked diligently on healthful eating and regular exercise, you may want to know if it will all pay off. Now, in a joint project between Swedish statisticians and a half million (!) volunteers in the UK, there’s a simple questionnaire that provides a pretty decent guesstimate on your odds of enjoying Christmas, 2020.

At Uppsala University in Sweden, between 2006 and 2010, health researchers set up a databank project called the UK Biobank (here’s the full report as published in The Lancet). They collected data from 655 measurements of demographics, health, and lifestyle, including blood samples, bone density, family history, weight, blood pressure, and so on, from 498,103 UK volunteers aged 40 to 70. The study didn’t include anyone younger than 40 because among younger people the most frequent causes of death are accidents, gunshot wounds, and suicides rather than chronic illnesses.

Excluded from the study were those who already had major illnesses such as cancer, heart diseases, or poorly controlled diabetes, as this would alter the data. They were seeking only people with nothing specifically wrong with them.

Mountains of data
Having amassed a mountain of data, the researchers then tracked developing health problems, as well as any deaths, as they appeared among the half million. The project ended in 2014. At that point, statisticians reviewed everything and found, to their surprise, that a series of simple health questions could predict whether or not the volunteers where in danger of dying within five years.

Although poor health’s usual suspects–high cholesterol, obesity, and alcohol excess–continued to be significant dangers to health, the researchers had uncovered a tool to predict longevity that required no physical exams or blood tests.

Once alerted to risks, here was an opportunity for change.

Ubble questionnaire
Before you leap into the questionnaire (either basking at the thought of many years ahead or getting your affairs in order), let me add a couple of comments about the questions themselves.

  • Your “danger” answers are opportunities. For example, a major predictor of longevity is how fast you walk. I wrote a Health Tip about this in 2013. The fix is pretty simple: if you’re a slow walker, speed up. Obviously, if you’ve got a disability that slows you down, like obesity or a bum knee, it will be challenging to speed up. But it’s not impossible to lose weight, work with a physical therapist, or even get a joint replacement so you can get moving again.
  • The second most accurate predictor of your longevity is how you yourself–not your family, not your doctor–perceive your own health. This profound self-fulfilling prophecy of personal judgment has been known for years. What you think of your health is actually a greater predictor than the reality of your situation. You believing that you are really healthy seems to send a message to every cell in your body to keep up the good work.
  • About smoking, the questionnaire confirmed again that you will add some years if you simply stop, right now. It’s really pathetic that Walgreen’s (“at the corner of happy and healthy”) is one of the largest purveyors of tobacco in the US.
  • One question refers to having a “blue badge.” That’s the UK/EU version of our disability placard. If you’ve got one and if you’re getting better, try not using it and maybe even not renewing it. Yes, disability parking is necessary when you’re disabled, but the study implies, like being on disability itself, a negativism about your health that in the end might come back to bite you (or chop some years away).
  • Biologic vs. chronologic When you complete the questionnaire, you’ll get what they call your Ubble Age, their term for something we’re already familiar with–namely, your biologic age as opposed to your actual chronologic age.

Here’s the Ubble link.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

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