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Can a blood test really tell you when you'll die?

Giles Tremlett The Guardian 10/12/2011 22:13
Can a blood test really tell you when you'll die? - Science - health


A small Spanish biological research company was deluged with queries after reports that its blood test could predict the age you would die at. Well, can it?



(...) The test is based on the idea that biological ageing grinds at your telomeres. And, although time ticks by uniformly, our bodies age at different rates. Genes, environment and our own personal habits all play a part in that process. A peek at your telomeres is an indicator of how you are doing. Essentially, they tell you whether you have become biologically younger or older than other people born at around the same time.

The key measure, explains María Blasco, a 45-year-old molecular biologist, head of Spain's cancer research centre and one of the world's leading telomere researchers, is the number of short telomeres. Blasco, who is also one of the co-founders of the Life Length company which is offering the tests, says that short telomeres do not just provide evidence of ageing. They also cause it. Often compared to the plastic caps on a shoelace, there is a critical level at which the fraying becomes irreversible and triggers cell death. "Short telomeres are causal of disease because when they are below a [certain] length they are damaging for the cells. The stem cells of our tissues do not regenerate and then we have ageing of the tissues," she explains. That, in a cellular nutshell, is how ageing works. Eventually, so many of our telomeres are short that some key part of our body may stop working.

The research is still in its early days but extreme stress, for example, has been linked to telomere shortening. I think back to a recent working day that took in three countries, three news stories, two international flights, a public lecture and very little sleep. Reasonable behaviour, perhaps, for someone in their 30s – but I am closer to my 50s. Do days like that shorten my expected, or real, life-span?

People with similar worries – or, perhaps, just Woody Allen-style neuroses about their health – have begun to contact the company set up by Blasco. Requests have poured in from around the world since a headline writer at the Independent, perhaps misled by Life Length's ambiguous name, invited readers to find out about "The £400 test that tells you how long you'll live." The internet did the rest.

Originally set up to help researchers and the pharmaceutical, health food and cosmetics industries test the impact of their products on telomeres, the flood of individual requests has caught Blasco's still tiny company by surprise. But the test is available, as of this month, via doctors in Spain and Portugal and there are plans to make it easier to carry out in the UK and the US as soon as possible. It sees a potential gold-mine in testing of what it calls people's "biological age" – though it is by no means alone in the field.

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