Many years ago, one would often hear the phrase ‘interest in science is at bottom an interest in man’. It was a common debating and essay theme and yours truly even encountered it in the CSS examination almost half a century ago. Since then the age of smart weapons and weapons of mass destruction has come upon us and the phrase is heard less often, but the discovery of new ways to kill does not get the same sort of media attention – perhaps even admiration – as the discovery of new ways to save life. And to that extent, at least, man can still claim his humanity.
Thus the British media has, in the past few days, been agog with news of a breakthrough in cancer treatment that sees cancer cells killing themselves. The breakthrough itself came not in the UK, but in Australia – which shows that the Aussies can do more than just play cricket.
The study appears to have found that after a short exposure to targeted therapy, cancer cells die themselves. This promises an entirely new approach to the fight against cancer, also reducing greatly the risk of cancer relapse.
Normal cells ultimately die but cancer cells, we are told, do not, and this method of treatment tries to cut off their ‘survival messaging’ support system and thus kill them off. This therefore targets the specific rogue cancer cells, not others and as such the side effects will also be limited.
It would not be too far off the mark to suggest that one of the most reliable yardsticks by which a society measures its advancement is the value it places on all forms of life in general but human life in particular. And in the West, especially in the UK, one is almost touched by the great store that is placed on life, on the need to improve health care, on reducing the number of children in poverty and ensuring that even the least privileged members of society have access to the basics in terms of food at least so that good health is ensured. There are a number of charities devoted to looking after cancer sufferers, towards funding cancer research and to care for people with various forms of disabilities. People who work in these organisations are, by and large, volunteers, most of them being touched in some way or the other by some form of disability affecting some members of their family. It is therefore sometimes difficult to understand how the same people can be apparently quite indifferent to the same issue when it comes to the life of others, ‘others’ being defined as people of a different nationality and different race or religion or usually both. Thus the massive loss of human life that took place in Iraq following the western invasion of that unfortunate land did not create very much more than the occasional murmur here and there, the media by and large being immune to this great human tragedy.
However, not all medical research is motivated by an altruistic desire for a better life for all. In a social welfare state – even one in which its social welfare character is fast eroding – there is the politically unwelcome business of looking after everyone and so it is important to know how long people may live to go on claiming things like state pensions, health care and disability benefits. Thus, a website called Ubble claims to tell ‘middle-aged’ people if they are at a risk to die in the next five years or not, and it does this by a very simple process of asking the individual just how healthy they think they are. The argument is whether one rates one’s own health as excellent, good, fair or poor is a better indicator of death in the next five years than things like blood pressure and pulse rate. The study covers people aged between 40 and 70, for after you hit 70, all bets are off. The sort of questions the website asks before making an assessment include queries like how briskly you walk and how many cars you own as this may indicate what sort of a lifestyle you have. The more cars you have, the more sedentary your life style and the greater the chances of your kicking the bucket.
The questions themselves are of a pretty basic nature; there being just 13 for men and even less, 11, for women. They are based on data from the UK Biobank taking into account 655 different factors that can affect the chances of death within the next five years. A total of almost half a million participants are in that database and were used for the study that started in 2007. More than 8500 people from among that group had died by 2012 when a follow-up was done.
While a self-assessment of health is the most important factor in assessing the risk of death among men, among women it is any diagnosis of cancer which is the biggest cause of death form for women in this age group. For both men and women who do not have any serious disease, smoking is the most important single factor, but the questions on this are not very detailed. For example, there seems to be no differentiation between people who may have given up smoking a month ago and those who gave it up 40 years back.
Most insurance question forms and certainly forms for determining private pension payouts are much more detailed and one is not quite sure just how useful this is going to be other than as a moment of light hearted fun for internet surfers. For those who go in for this sort of thing, they can have a flutter on http://www.ubble.co.uk/risk-calculator and see how long they have to go. You get your end score with a percentage risk figure which tells you what are the chances in percentage terms of dying in the next five years.
According to the calculator, I only have a 5.3 per cent chance of meeting my Maker in the next five years, so the chances of your being stuck with this column for some years to come would appear to be high!
Perhaps one corollary of having a good life is a preoccupation with keeping it going as long as possible. Once upon a time living till 100 was so unique that it made front page news; not any more, although the old custom of getting a letter from the monarch on your 100th birthday still continues. But it is now predicted that a third of the babies born in 2013 may expect to reach the age of 100 and if the custom continues till then, the monarch at the time would have an awful lot of letters to sign. The current life expectancy in the UK is 81.5 years and by 2030 is expected to go up to 90, though just how far that is desirable is debatable. I used to meet an old lady at the train station on Fridays when she used to go for her weekly shopping who said more than once that the only thing she ever got to speak to was her teddy bear and teddy bears don’t talk much. Perhaps Jonathan Swift had a point. Longevity without the quality of life to go with is perhaps not such a hot cake after all.•