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Death under a microscope

Icelandic study reveals data that could be used to estimate life span


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Death under a microscope

Early in human history, civilizations sought to determine the span of life, from the Mesopotamians relying on animal entrails to Romans charting bird flights for answers. In the past decade, scientists have sought to predict death by using artificial intelligence, blood samples, genomes, and other techniques.

A recent study offers a new way for scientists to measure the length of life.

Researchers at deCODE Genetics in Reykjavik, Iceland, examined plasma proteins in nearly 23,000 Icelanders to predict participants with the highest and lowest risks of dying. The study explains that in a group of participating 60-80-year-olds, 5 percent had the highest risk of death. Of that group, 88 percent died within 10 years.

“This is pretty cool, but also scary, and hopefully somewhat useful,” said Kari Stefansson, a senior author of the paper. “This shows that our general health is reflected in the plasma proteome. Using just one blood sample per person you can easily compare large groups in a standardized way, for example, to estimate treatment effects in clinical trials.”

The results of the study aren’t surprising to Nathaniel T. Jeanson, a research biologist at Answers in Genesis. Physical age and health can be seen with outward appearance, so it follows that it can be seen on a molecular level, he explained.

While the study gives an estimate of the risk of death, it isn’t fully accurate. The results don’t take into account factors outside of biological control, such as a car accident or hurricane, he said.

Despite this, Jeanson expressed concern about the ethical implications of the knowledge the study provides and how that information could be used.

Terry Rosell, bioethicist and professor of pastoral theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, expressed similar concerns.

If the methods from the study become available as a test, Rosell worries about information privacy. Potential injustices or discrimination could occur if insurance agencies, care providers, employers, or family members were made aware of when someone was likely to die.

Along with this, the study raises the question of whether people want to know their life span. For some, it would be empowering to know if they had a chance at a long life. For others, the knowledge could have a negative effect on their mental health.

“We’re all different and it would probably depend on our constitution, our personality, our environment, other social determinants of health, poverty, or educational level,” he said.

The study also raises concerns regarding power corruption, he explained. Humans seek out knowledge to gain power, but “maybe there are some things we shouldn’t know,” he said.

He cautions that the study needs to move forward with these factors in mind.

Despite his concerns, Rosell expressed there are positives to this discovery. The study could enable people to embrace and accept mortality.

“This Icelandic study reminds us that our days are limited,” he said. “Just realizing that there is an end to this makes me count the days and wake up every morning with gratitude for one more because our days are numbered.”


Liz Lykins Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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