Two Swedish biostatisticians drawing data from the UK Biobank have created a test accessible online for estimating your “age” and chances of surviving the next five years. It’s published in The Lancet medical journal. I couldn’t wait to try it!
The test has an odd name, “UbbLE,” for UK Biobank Longevity Explorer, yet easy to remember because it rhymes with “Hubble” the telescope. The Biobank is a database of half a million British volunteers who answered a detailed questionnaire about their health history and habits and underwent a physical exam and a battery of tests. Their health is being monitored for the rest of their lives.
The UbbLE test requires answers to 13 or 11 questions for men or women, respectively. They have been condensed from a grand total of 655 variables in the database to a bunch that is most predictive of five-year mortality and “UbbLE age.”
To qualify for the test you must be 40 to 70 years old and have lived permanently in the British Isles. Having lived there for almost five decades and continuing a similar (or better) lifestyle in the USA I think I qualify. So what did I find?
My UbbLE age is a full 12 years lower than my chronological age. That implies I have the mortality risk of a 54-year-old. Secondly, I have a 3% risk of dying in the next five years. There will be cynics who doubt this post and would love to burst my UbbLE: “It must be a lousy test”/ “He lied about the answers”/ “He screwed up”/ “He’d never say if results went the other way” (TRUE).
It takes luck to have a greater life expectancy, and it’s helpful to be young! But, more seriously, it helps to have a low BMI (weight for height) and a brisk walking pace, to be a non-smoker and free of any history of cancer, diabetes and mental illness, and better not to be poor.
UbbLE doesn’t predict longevity more than five years ahead. So it is no substitute for the MetLife longevity predictor used by insurers and investors, but it’s the best test of its kind to date.
I was curious how my UbbLE age and mortality risk would change if I played with the answers. The second most predictive factor (after walking pace) is smoking, so I re-ran the test by pretending to be a current smoker. It lifted my UbbLE age from 54 to 62, and my five-year mortality climbed from 3 to 6%. The estimated loss of eight years of my life is enormous, and there are smoking-related disabilities that the test ignores. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for us, but we can kid ourselves that we are in the short and lucky percentile at the healthy end of the spectrum of probability. Since the risk of a fatal smoking-related disease is statistical there is enough wiggle room in the spectrum for smokers to believe “it won’t happen to me,“ as a friend once told me after smoking two packs a day for 72 years. Perhaps the test will help a few more people give up the habit.
I don’t take much comfort in my own results because of a superstitious fear of being hit by a bolt of lightning. You can never be really sure in the longevity stakes. But they have nudged me to consider if my investments for retirement are too conservative for my UbbLE age. Will they provide enough income through equity growth to cover me if I survive deep into my nineties before I am struck down?
People in possession of a few facts about others can play the UbbLE game to satisfy their curiosity. They might put the geezer next-door secretly to the test after he threatens their dog for running in his yard, hoping he will drop dead before Max. And someone grumbling about alimony might want to know the chances of natural causes ending payments to an EX in the next five years. UbbLE can make statistics fun!
One of the main attractions of the test is its simplicity, and another is the authority of a huge database behind it. In future, it will be refined for testing people younger than 40 and older than 70. But we should be glad that the science of predicting when we will die is never going to be highly precise, otherwise we would have some hard choices and feelings. For healthy people of any age predictions will always be blurred, and even those in failing health often fool a doctor who offers a precise forecast. It’s much better that way.
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