By Jay Fidell
The news recently brought us some stories about a new over-the-counter blood test that will tell you your “biological age” and will be able to predict your life expectancy to within a decade. It will come on the market in Britain later this year, and we can expect that soon enough it will be in the U.S. too.
You want scary? That’s scary. Exactly how much do you want to know about when you will die? And if you do know, what will you do with that information. Perhaps scarier still is what other people would do.
It’s like a science fiction version of Faust, where you bargain to find your mortality, and finding it changes your life completely. No one will find joy in these metrics. The uncertainty of life, the challenge of living into the mystery of the future, is what makes us human to live another day. What do they say? Ignorance is bliss.
Literature and art have long tantalized us with stories where by one means or another we see into the future and learn the date or circumstances of our demise. These fantasies will now be made into reality through the miracle of modern biology. It’s much more serious, and threatening, when bioscience tells you so.
The test was designed by a company called Life Length. It measures the length of a person’s “telomeres,” the cap-like structures on the tips of the chromosomes. Scientists say that the shorter your telomeres are, the nearer you are to death. That gets right to the point, doesn’t it?
This goes way beyond the conventional predictions we can make by Q&A about life style and medical conditions. This is much more the real deal than Q&A analysis, and it gets you where you live, as they say. We never had this level of accuracy before, except perhaps when it was much too late.
Without dwelling on the biochemistry, we need to examine what it means to humankind and to scientific ethics, just as we should do for all disruptive biology. Once you have this information, can you ignore it? Can you override it? You might be motivated to go the gym, but it’s not clear that that will affect your telomeres or your measured mortality. I think I liked it the old way better.
In any event, you may not have exclusive control of what happens with it.
This is great fodder for the actuaries among us, and surely the insurance industry must be reading the news with great interest. If anyone will permit them to take the biological age test from us they can get a much better handle on life expectancy, and thus on rates and reserves. It’s only a matter of time before they do. This will take the discomfort of life expectancy to a new level.
What about our employers? What about the government? Will they be able to require us to take these tests in order to plan or not plan our careers or medical or retirement benefits, or worse? That would make age discrimination into a new and more chilling art form. It sounds like 1984 all over again.
Of course, the test raises the “bucket list” phenomenon. After the movie, lots of people started making and executing bucket lists, and they still do. They weren’t about to go, nor did they have any idea when they would go, but the movie encouraged them to do some madcap in anticipation anyway. Good for them for breaking out. A darker model would be that of Nicholas Gage in “Leaving Las Vegas.”
But if a person takes the test and determines he’s not long for this world, that would be great cause, wouldn’t it, to take the bucket list more seriously. I would predict that many people will take the test, $700 cost or not, and once advised of their biological age and life expectancy they’ll make a list too. The movie will become popular again. Stores will sell bucket list stationery and there’ll be websites too.
It opens the door, doesn’t it, to all kinds of end-of-life planning scenarios, many of which I can’t think of and don’t want to think of. One thing’s for sure, this test has appeal, morbid perhaps, but appeal nonetheless, and its availability is more likely to be remembered than forgotten. Lots of people will be drawn to it, something like the moth to the flame. Clearly, it's not the ideal birthday gift.
Over time, the cost will come down to a manageable price, and more people will be drawn to the flame and will, with trepidation, award themselves with this dreaded personal sentence. Their lives are likely to change, but how will the lives of their families and friends change? The ripple effect could be something to watch.
For me, I think for now I’ll just skip it.