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Tiresias in a Blood Test

It's the stuff of Greek tragedies, Hollywood films, and Tarot card readings — finding out ahead of time when one is going to die. But there may now be a test that's able to predict whether someone has a rendezvous with Death in the not-too-distant future.

In research published earlier this week in PLOS Medicine, Estonian and Finnish researchers describe a four biomarker test that they said "improved prediction of the short-term risk of death from all causes above established risk factors."

The important part here is that the test may be able to tell someone if they will die within a five-year period regardless of a specific health risk. Based on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the test was able to correlate a person's death risk independent of disease and independent of other known mortality risks such as age, tobacco use, alcohol use, cholesterol, obesity, and blood pressure, the researchers say in their study.

The test measures in blood the levels of albumin, alpha-1 acidic glycoprotein, lipid metabolism variable, and citric acid concentration. While the biomarkers are found in all people, their relative amounts are what determine a person's risk for death in the short term.

For the study, blood samples from more than 17,000 generally healthy individuals were screened for more than 100 different biomarkers. The test subjects were then followed for a five-year period. During that time almost 700 people died from various illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.

The researchers determined that these people had similar levels of the four biomarkers. Additionally, they found that one in five participants with the highest biomarker scores died within the first year of the study.

They acknowledge that there are limitations to their technology and say that as an observational study, "it provides evidence of only a correlation between a biomarker score and ill health. It does not identify any underlying causes." NMR technology, they add, may not be able to detect other factors which may be the true cause of serious health problems, and more research is necessary to determine the clinical value of the four biomarkers, they say.

If their findings hold up, will it mean that parlor-room fortunetellers will be using it instead of a crystal ball?