How Long Have You Got?

Photo: Thomas Tolstrup/Getty Images

The 120-year club, anyone? It may take a bit of heavy lifting and, yes, some mental muscle, to expand your wellness spectrum.

Looking for a life span-o-meter? These five medical tests, backed by science, can offer up clues about how long you’ll live.

1. Get a Lab Report
It may be no surprise that testing the blood for signs of inflammation can help predict your longevity. Inflammation is your body’s response to toxins and anything else that shouldn’t be there, like belly fat. When you’re in a state of chronic inflammation, it’s often because you’re battling obesity, a cigarette habit or high cholesterol, and these can have a big impact on your long-term health. A 2017 European study analyzed 6,545 people with an average age of 55, comparing three different biomarkers (medical signs in the body) that are known to indicate the presence of inflammation. The results showed that each biomarker was linked, to a varying degree, with an increased risk of death over the next several years.

If you don’t like blood tests, there’s a less invasive way to find out what your bodily fluids can say about your life span. A 2015 study at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. found that people with lower saliva levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A had a higher risk of dying sooner. Immunoglobulins help fight infectious disease like cancer, so it makes sense that we’re better equipped to manage health challenges when our levels are high. Our diet, genes, age and other factors can affect how well we produce immunoglobulins. The researchers hope that a spit sample could one day be used as an early sign of health problems, while there’s time to treat them.

2. Find It in Your Heart
The iHeart Device can be clipped onto your fingertip, where it assesses how well your heart is working. iHeart measures your resting heart rate, your blood oxygen level and the force of your arterial pulse. The device also evaluates the stiffness of your aorta, the large artery through which your heart pumps blood to the rest of your body. Aortic stiffness can forecast the likelihood of cardiovascular disease and dementia before you’ve even reached your senior years, and it’s been shown in research to be a reliable predictor of earlier death.

The iHeart, which was developed by a physician in Mississauga, Ont., takes just 30 seconds to size you up and report your “internal age”—or what manufacturer VitalSines International defines as “how supple you are on the inside.” The iHeart comes with a mobile app to help you improve your lifestyle and increase your aortic flexibility, as well as decrease your internal age.

3. Do Acid
A 2016 study at the University of Utah found that relatively healthy men and women in their 70s had a shorter life span if they had lower-than-normal bicarbonate levels in their blood. To be precise, these participants had a 24 per cent higher risk of dying over the next decade.

Bicarbonate, a form of carbon dioxide, is what our body uses to regulate pH level. Ideally our pH should be around 7.4, which is slightly alkaline (neutral is seven, and below seven is acidic). Our kidneys and lungs normally absorb and release bicarbonate (a base, or alkaline) and carbon dioxide (an acid) as needed. It’s already known that severely ill people with uncontrolled pH levels are near death.

This research shows that even when you’re generally healthy, a low bicarbonate level might predict earlier death.

Our bicarbonate levels go up when we eat acidic fruits and vegetables like oranges and tomatoes, so the researchers believe this might be one possible way for people with below-normal levels to reduce their risk. (Of course, there are plenty of other health-related reasons to increase our intake of fresh fruits and veggies!)

4. All Rise
A test of how well you stand up from sitting may help pinpoint just how long you’ll live. The Sitting-Rising test is a simple evaluation tool developed by a doctor in Brazil. From a standing position, you’re required to sit on the floor and then get to your feet again, as hands-free as possible. If you do need support—if you find it necessary to put your hand on the floor as you get up, for example—points are deducted.

The test itself isn’t new. It’s been used for years to assess musculoskeletal function. But more recently there’s been buzz around a paper in European Journal of Preventive Cardiology showing that Sitting-Rising test scores were reliable predictors of life span in over 2,000 adults aged 51 to 80. The worse their score, the more likely they were to die within six years of the test.

5. You Are the Test
None of these new discoveries can predict with precision exactly how close you are to your end. And, of course, they can all be mitigated with lifestyle improvements like increased exercise and a better diet. Perhaps, then, rather than using these life span tests as doomsday clocks, we can use them as opportunities to turn back the clock!

A version of this article appeared in the June 2017 issue with the headline, “How Long Have You Got?”, p. 63-64.