In tandem with several thousand Brits today, I logged on to the Ubble website earlier on, to check out my chances of dying in the next five years. In fact, it seems that so many of us did, the website crashed mid-morning.
In case you missed this phenomenon in the media today, this is a website for people aged 40-70 years old, where you answer a short online questionnaire – eleven questions for women, thirteen for men – and get an estimation of your chances of an early demise, plus a comparison with the rest of the UK population. The website has been set up by scientists using data from the UK Biobank, and measures 655 different measures that can affect the chances of premature death. The questionnaire is interesting because rather than asking your weight, pulse rate, levels of exercise etc, the questions focus on how healthy you think you are, how briskly (or not) you walk, and other wellbeing factors such as whether you have been to your doctor with depression or anxiety issues. Weirdly, it only asks men if they have a car or not, no idea why.
The good news for me is that my Ubble age is 34 years, almost a decade younger than my real age and my answers indicate my risk of dying in the next five years is only 0.3%. Without blood tests and individual circumstantial evidence, the questionnaire cannot be taken as scientific gospel and it only predicts your chances for the next five years; it is emphatically not a prediction of your long term health. The scientists running the programme hope that those who end up with a higher Ubble age than their real age, or a high risk factor, will take steps to reverse this i.e. good diet, exercise and most of all giving up smoking, which is the highest risk factor for both genders. The Biobank has around 500,000 participants, who provide genetic information and their health measurements in detail, to enable scientists to learn more about diseases, possible prevention and cures. Of those, death rates within a five year period are low – around 2%. So if your Ubble risk is higher than that, in theory you have a higher than average risk than most.
Scaremongering or useful information? It probably depends on your score. Despite getting a reasonable score, I don’t think everything in my proverbial garden is rosy. There are plenty of improvements to make. But one thing that wasn’t asked about in the questionnaire, which I think is key, was exercise habits. This week I read an article in the New York Times about two large scale studies of adults and physical activity rates, which then compared them with the death rates of people in the survey. You can read the details in the article if you are interested, but the findings boil down to two results.
In the American study, they found that those who did no exercise at all were at the greatest risk of premature death, which is hardly surprising. The people who met the recommended levels were 31% less likely to die prematurely, and those who exceeded the recommended levels could reduce the risk by 39%. In their results, there was no difference between moderate activities such as walking and jumping about at Body Attack. Good news for folk that don’t like getting hot and sweaty and good news for turtles everywhere.
The Australian study, however found that there was a difference. Those who exercised up to 30% of their exercise time in vigorous activity e.g. aerobics over golf, would decrease the risk by 9%. Again, those who worked out above the recommended levels and with more than 30% of that as intense exercise, could add a further 19%. In their findings, it was a clear case of it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. To me, this means brisk, breathless walking up hills = good, aimless meandering = still better than sitting at on your butt all day. Golf may be a good walk spoiled, but it’s still better than channel surfing TV all day. And we can all do with a bit less of this:
The evidence of science and research into health can often be contradictory and at times, bamboozling. Five portions of fruit and veg a day, or seven? Would nine be too many if over half of them are fruits, and therefore full of sugar? Is running the best thing for fitness and weight loss or is it HIIT? There will be evidence to back up any of these claims, that is the one thing that is certain.
I am not sure of many things but this: eating well, giving up smoking and excessive drinking, and getting sweaty a few times a week will help keep you physically and mentally healthy. How we take care of our mental health is just as important as what we do to look after our bodies; questionnaires and scientific research rarely look at humans in a fully holistic sense, instead focusing on one or two areas of interest. For example, we have all heard of those people who do everything right: good diet, lots of exercise, no booze or fags…yet they die inexplicably before their time. And there are old people who have smoked and drunk whisky all their days, doing nothing more than minor pottering and still live well into their eighties.
These people are the exception to the rule and we should never downplay the effect of stress on our bodies. What if the younger person had a tough job working twelve hours a day, while the older person spent most of their time happily hanging out with friends and family? Or, hard to contemplate as it is, maybe it was just tough luck and their time was up.
I don’t expect or even want to live forever. If I get the same amount of time again, I’ll consider it a fair crack at life. For me, spending the next forty odd years eating nothing but salad and going to the gym six times a week is not on the cards. Talk about draining the joy out of life! Yet, there are inspirations, such as the 90-something woman in the news last week, who completed her first marathon after taking up running in her seventies, after beating cancer twice. I don’t know how the hell she did it, but I do know it took work.
None of us can ever know what is round the corner, but I wouldn’t mind if it was this:
So I’ll eat my greens and sweat a bit at the gym or on a hill, keeping my fingers crossed that my exit is not too early. And most of the time, I shall be ignoring what the researchers say.
Until next time,