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Scientists Develop a Blood Test That Predicts Risk of Death

By Roni Dengler
Aug 20, 2019 10:45 AMDec 23, 2019 12:13 AM
Blood Test Vial - Shutterstock
(Credit: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)


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If you’ve ever wondered how likely you are to die in the next five to 10 years, scientists may now have an answer for you. Researchers identified 14 molecules in blood that are associated with dying from any cause. They say a score based on the molecules can predict one’s risk of death. But the ominous foretelling is not all bad. Scientists say it may encourage lifestyle interventions and help with treatment decisions.

“The association of our biomarker score with mortality is so strong,” study author P. Eline Slagboom, a Dutch expert in aging and human longevity, said in an email. 

She added that the find was particularly startling “given that it is only based on 14 metabolic markers in blood measured at a single point in the life of individuals.” 

Death’s Door

Some people might love to know how close to death they are. Others may find the idea horrifying. But for clinicians, being able to predict an elderly person’s risk of death could seriously influence medical decisions. A robust risk score could indicate whether a patient is too fragile for an invasive operation, for example. But some risk factors used by doctors now, like blood pressure and cholesterol, reveal different things in middle-aged people compared to those over 85-years-old. Slagboom and her team were looking for blood-based markers that could indicate older people’s risk of death. They hoped that information could provide opportunities for improved lifestyles or better treatment. 

The researchers amassed blood work and health data from biobanks around the world on more than 44,000 Europeans aged 18 to 109. Over 5,500 participants died during follow up for the study. The scientists first figured out which biomarkers were associated with potential mortality. Then they tested the association in people of different ages. 

Mortality Markers

In the end, the team found 14 biomarkers that are independently associated with mortality in people of all ages. Some of the markers, like the ratio of polyunsaturated fats to total fatty acids, were tied with decreased mortality. Meanwhile, other indicators like glucose levels suggested increased mortality, the researchers report Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

When the researchers plugged their data into a model, they found that these new biomarkers could predict the five- and 10-year mortality risk better than conventional risk factors. The finding held even for those over 60-years-old, which had confounded risk scores before. 

“It is really surprising that if you measure blood samples only once in the lifetime of older persons, that the blood molecules reflect vulnerability in such a way that you can indicate 5- and 10-year mortality risk so well,” Joris Deelen, the study’s first-author, told Discover via email. 

The researchers hope to use the new biomarker score to design better medical interventions. “We want to test if our biomarker score can be used to determine if there is improvement in mortality risk when novel medication is tested in elderly,” Slagboom said. They also want to explore whether lifestyle interventions are more effective when doctors have a better grasp on how vulnerable elderly persons are.

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