Skip to comments.Want to know when you’re going to die? Your life span is written in your DNA...
Posted on 10/19/2018 10:55:55 AM PDT by Red Badger
Want to know when youre going to die? Your life span is written in your DNA, and were learning to read the code.
It's the ultimate unanswerable question we all face: When will I die? If we knew, would we live differently? So far, science has been no more accurate at predicting life span than a $10 fortune teller. But thats starting to change.
The measures being developed will never get good enough to forecast an exact date or time of death, but insurance companies are already finding them useful, as are hospitals and palliative care teams. I would love to know when Im going to die, says Brian Chen, a researcher who is chief science officer for Life Epigenetics, a company that services the insurance industry. That would influence how I approach life.
The work still needs to be made more practical, and companies have to figure out the best uses for the data. Ethicists, meanwhile, worry about how people will cope with knowing the final secret of life. But like it or not, the death predictor is coming.
The clock Steve Horvath, a UCLA biostatistician who grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, describes himself as very straight, while his identical twin brother is gay. So he had a personal interest when, a few years ago, a colleague asked him for help analyzing biological data from the saliva of twins with opposite sexual orientations. The colleague was trying to detect chemical changes that would indicate whether certain genes were turned on or off.
The hypothesis was that these so-called epigenetic changes, which alter the activity of DNA but not the DNA sequence itself, might help explain why two people with identical genes differ in this way. But Horvath found zero signal in the epigenetics of the twins saliva. Instead, what caught his attention was a powerful link between epigenetic changes and aging. I was blown away by how strong the signal was, he says. I dropped most other projects in my lab and said: This is the future.
Horvath became particularly intrigued by how certain chemical changes to cytosineone of the four DNA bases, or letters of the genetic codemake genes more or less active. Given someones actual age, looking for these changes in that persons DNA can tell him whether the persons body is aging unusually fast or slowly. His team tested this epigenetic clock on 13,000 blood samples collected decades ago, from people whose subsequent date of death was known. The results revealed that the clock can be used to predict mortality.
Because most common diseasescancer, heart disease, Alzheimersare diseases of aging, the ticking of Horvaths clock predicts how long someone will live and how much of that life will be free of these diseases (though it doesnt foretell which ones people will get). After five years of research, there is nobody who disputes that epigenetics predicts life span, he says.
Aging eight or more years faster than your calendar age equates to twice the typical risk of dying, while aging seven years slower is associated with half the risk of death, Horvath says. His lab has developed a new version that is such a precise life span predictor they named it after the Grim Reaper: DNAm GrimAge. The epigenetic clock is more accurate the younger a person is. Its especially inaccurate for the very old.
At this point, we dont have any evidence that its clinically useful, because there are big error bars, Horvath says. Besides, theres no pill to reverse the effects. But though it will never be perfectly accurate, Horvath and his clock are getting closer than anyone else ever has to answering the question that hangs over us alland determining whether there is anything we can do to change the answer.
Slow the ticking As we age, the cytosine at hundreds of thousand of spots in our DNA either gains or loses methyl chemical groups (CH3). Horvaths insight was to measure these increases and decreases in methylation, find the 300 to 500 changes that matter most, and use those to make his clocks. His findings suggest that the speed of the clock is strongly influenced by underlying genes. He estimates that about 40% of the ticking rate is determined by genetic inheritance, and the rest by lifestyle and luck.
Morgan Levine, who completed postdoctoral research in Horvaths lab and now runs her own lab at Yale, is starting to compare an individuals epigenetic profile with the profile of cells from the lining of a healthy umbilical cord. The more people deviate from that standard, the worse off they are likely to be. She thinks she will eventually be able to compare various epigenetic age measures to predict even in childhood who is going to be at greatest risk of which diseaseswhen its still early enough to change that future. Your genes arent your fate, but even less so with things like epigenetics, she says. There definitely should be things we can do to delay aging if we can just figure out what they are.
A few likely contenders are totally unsurprising. Eating a healthy diet including lots of vegetables and fish is associated with slower epigenetic aging. Feel older when youre sleep deprived? Its probably not a coincidence. Horvath has shown that people with insomnia are more likely to show accelerated epigenetic aging. Everything you associate with a healthy lifestyle does relate to the new biomarkers in the expected way, which is a boring result, but its scientifically very exciting, he says.
More unexpectedly, he finds that regular exercise wont add much more than a few months to your life. But those measurements are only on the DNA in blood, and Horvath says hed like to look at changes in muscle, too, to see whether exercise makes a bigger difference there.
Horvaths own clock is not inspiring. He was surprised in analyzing his urine to find that he was epigenetically tracking five years older than his chronological age. A few years later, he tested his blood and was relieved to find the results more in line with his years, but still, he says, I would say Im not blessed in terms of epigenetic aging.
At age 50, he says his work is motivated by self-interestIm as desperate as anyone else to find ways of slowing aging. But he also keeps in mind the social and financial costs of an aging population. We need to find ways to keep people healthier longer, he says.
He hopes that refinements to his clock will soon make it precise enough to reflect changes in lifestyle and behavior. Investors and biotech companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars right now on drugs that might slow aging and defer disease. But how will we know whats effective? Those working on drug discovery cant wait 50 years to find out. Horvath hopes his clock will provide the answers.
The business of death prediction Companies like Reinsurance Group of America are already looking into using the epigenetic clock to tweak and personalize risk assessments for life insurance. Right now, rates are based largely on demographicspeoples gender and ageand a few health metrics, such as whether they smoke. The clock adds another useful data point.
Such personalization raises questions about fairness. If your epigenetic clock is ticking faster through no fault of your own, should you be charged a higher rate for life insurance? The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008known as GINAprotects against discrimination on the basis of genes. But it doesnt address epigenetics.
Theres also the issue of privacy. Your likely life span or true biological age is information that many consider intensely personal. For now, regulations and privacy policies dont even consider the possibility of such information. But as the science quickly progresses, questions about how to use and protect this data will become ever more pressing.
Can Horvaths clock and other technologies being developed to predict death ever be accurate enough to be truly useful? I havent seen any of these purported predictive algorithms be precise in terms of timing of deathto the contrary, says Diane Meier, a professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. People live for a really long time with a very high burden of disease and frailty, she says.
Gal Salomon, CEO of Clew Medical, an Israeli company that uses artificial intelligence to identify medical risks in hospitals, says he initially resisted the idea of developing a death predictor, thinking it unethical. Then he realized that doctors could use the technology to understand where we need to stop. An algorithm Clew developed can help doctors and family members make the decision to switch from aggressive to palliative care, he says, overruling the typical instinct to provide heroic live-saving measures. The system, which for the moment is used only in hospitals, can also alert a family that the end is near, he says.
Atul Butte, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies quality of care, says the jury is still out about whether this kind of machine learning from patterns of care actually provides better treatment. But theres no doubt, he adds, that medical care is headed in that direction. Five to 10 years from now, the health system that doesnt use this data to improve their medical delivery is going to be deemed archaic, he says.
Karen Weintraub is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I won't throw anything away.
In Data We Trust
Cool that my DNA has programmed into it things like being or not being hit by a bus, airplane crashes, meteor extinction, etc.
Not hijack the point of the thread but instead of looking for something genetic here to explain it he probably could have just found out that his brother got molested by a gay guy when he was young.
Outside of some scheming life insurance reason I can find almost no practical use for knowing ones approximate time of death.
There is a reason the good Lord kept such information from us. Who would not likely develop acute and perhaps incapacitating anxiety with such knowledge and more so as that time drew near? Here’s what I do know. It is 100% certain that I am going to die. Knowing the day or the hour should not affect the manner in which I live my life. If it did, then something is significantly wrong with my approach to life and the time I am allotted.
“I would love to know when Im going to die, says Brian Chen, a researcher who is chief science officer for Life Epigenetics, a company that services the insurance industry. That would influence how I approach life.”
For all his ‘smarts,’ this individual is missing the entire picture. We’re not promised tomorrow; we’re not promised the next breath. And he and his ilk think they can out smart the Creator. They keep refusing to accept that there is a Creator because they want to be in charge of it all.
I’m probably saying it incorrectly...what is it...about living responsibly for the future yet expect to be called tonight. It’s the opposite of the farmer who thought he’d be able to live a long life based on what he had, only to be told he’d be called (die) that night.
My memory is going. Can anyone assist with that saying?
The destruction and mayhem caused by people not wanting to die at their allotted time would be horrendous. There would always be someone willing to kill another or cause indirectly/accidently the death of another while trying to remain past the Lord’s given time to them.
What a nightmare that would be, yes? It would be like opening another Pandora’s Box.
I saw a T-shirt once that said “if I lived every day like I knew it would be my last, the body count would be horrendous.”
And he told them this parable: The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.
Then he said, This is what Ill do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And Ill say to myself, You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.
But God said to him, You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?
That was the New Testament parable of the rich fool:
Luke 12:13-21 New International Version (NIV)
The Parable of the Rich Fool
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.
14 Jesus replied, Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you? 15 Then he said to them, Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.
16 And he told them this parable: The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.
18 Then he said, This is what Ill do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And Ill say to myself, You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.
20 But God said to him, You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?
21 This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.
New International Version (NIV)
Thank you, Obadiah!
Can you recall the other proverb I’m thinking of? It goes how we’re to plan for the future and yet be ready to be called... Not planning like partying or such..planning like being good stewards for our future yet knowing we could be called anytime...
And I’m going to write Luke 20 on a tabbie and tape it to my pc. I keep having to put notes up for a misplaced memory.
If only Vince Foster had had better DNA ...
Thank you, as well, Red Badger!
I put my foot in my mouth so often on this site (usually because of my memory) and am so glad to see well rounded people on it who can assist!
This site is wonderful for folks who seek knowledge.
I am hiring a retired Google coder to overwrite my DNA to match Methuselah’s.
They have a name for people who forget things and it is . . . I forget what it's called. But they have a name for it.
My DNA states “die at 95 with two sexy 24 year old blonde nurses in Vegas”..
Two of my sisters have passed away. One fell off of a train overpass and died at 62 and another decided to sit in a chair for 10 years without moving. She died at the age of 70.
It’s not all DNA.
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