UbbLE (UK Longevity Explorer) is a new website based on the research by Andrea Ganna and Erik Ingelsson from Karolinka Institute and Uppsala University. It features data found in the UK Biobank, a large-scale national health resource which collected a huge amount of measurements from over half a million UK volunteers aged 40-70. These various measurements included physical examinations like blood samples as well as written ones like filling out detailed questionnaires.
655 specific variables were then lifted from this Biobank and used to observe what factors may impact the chances of premature death. These correlations can be viewed in interactive-graph form in UbbLE’s ‘Association Explorer’, giving the viewer the option to look at how each variable individually affect chances of death in the next five years. Some of these variables include how many cups of coffee a day you drink, your hair colour, whether you play computer games, whether you consider yourself a morning or evening person, and many more. Those who have volunteered their medical history to the UK Biobank will continue to have their health tracked for the rest of their lives, helping researchers learn about diseases and expand their database.
However, while UbbLE’s is certainly a powerful research tool, it’s the site’s ‘Risk Calculator’ that is getting people’s attention. From the data collected, a short questionnaire was put together that gauges how healthy you are – featuring 13 questions for men, and 11 for women. The questionnaire is designed for middle aged people from the UK, corresponding to the age group of the Biobank participants. Seemingly vague questions are asked like how briskly you walk and how many cars you own, while also asking you how you would rate your own health (poor, fair, good, or excellent) in order to determine a percentage risk factor for death within five years. According to scientists writing in the Lancet medical journal, asking participants to rate their own health is actually a more accurate prediction of premature death than physical examination. After it’s complete, the Risk Calculator provides you with your “UbbLE age”, effectively relating the answers you chose to the age with the most similar risk of dying. Thus if your UbbLE age is higher than your real age, you have a higher five year mortality risk than the average person in the UK, and vice versa.
Though UbbLE is meant for the UK specifically, it can likely still be used by countries with similar demographic and socio-economic factors, but it may yield less accurate results. Conclusions made by the Risk Calculator may be considerable, but creators want it to be noted that even for UK participants the results of the questionnaire are in no way verbatim.
“The fact that the score can be measured online in a brief questionnaire, without any need for lab tests or physical examination, is an exciting development. We hope that our score might eventually enable doctors to quickly and easily identify their highest risk patients, although more research will be needed to determine whether it can be used in this way in a clinical setting,” says Ganna. “Of course, the score has a degree of uncertainty and shouldn’t be seen as a deterministic prediction. For most people, a high risk of dying in the next five years can be reduced by increased physical activity, smoking cessation, and a healthy diet.”
Simon Thompson and Peter Willeit from the University of Cambridge express that while the website is pleasantly simple it shouldn’t be used as a way of measuring long-term life expectancy. “Whether this will help individuals improve self-awareness of their health status, however, or only lead to so-called cyberchondria, is a moot point,” they write.
However UbbLE made sure to cover their bases, explaining this idea in their disclaimer seen before using the Risk Calculator:
“The result is in no way intended to be an accurate prediction of the relevant risk related to a specific person.
THIS WEBSITE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL OR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES ADVICE.
The information provided is not intended or implied to be a substitute for medical advice offered by a healthcare professional. If you desire or need such services or advice, regarding the information contained on this website or otherwise, you should consult a professional healthcare provider.”
Regardless of the inherent worries, this is a very valuable resource for medical professionals and researchers everywhere. It will be interesting to see what kind of developments come from this charity-built website, and what other tools it may inspire in the near future. Who knows, maybe this is the first step towards being able to get a check-up from the comfort of your own home.