How Long Will You Live? Big Data and a New Calculator Will Give You the Grim News

The author, hard at work reducing his heart age. (Photo: Kelly Rossiter)

In a recent post, Mary Jo asked Is your heart older than you are? using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coincidentally, north of the border in Canada, a study was just released based on "big data" — years of information collected from large population surveys, census data and hospital records. They used the data to build the Cardiovascular Disease Population Risk Tool (CVDPoRT), an algorithm that basically estimates the risk of having a heart attack or stroke based on many different factors from the obvious (like smoking and exercise) to the obscure (potatoes? juice?) It also takes into account ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status, quality of neighborhood and personal estimates of stress levels and "a sense of belonging."

This is what the opening page of the heart and stroke calculator looks like. (Photo: Big Life)

The researchers were able to take the data and create health calculators that anyone can use. Dr. Doug Manuel, lead author, says in his introduction:

People are interested in healthy living, but we don't often have that discussion in the doctor's office. Doctors will check your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but they don't necessarily ask about lifestyle factors that could put you at risk for a heart attack and stroke. We hope this tool can help people — and their care team — obtain better information about healthy living and options for reducing their risk of heart attack and stroke.
big life heart attack
My risk of a heart attack in the next five years. (Photo: Big Life)

It's all purely based on statistical analysis; if your risk of a heart attack in the next five years comes up as 4 percent (as mine did), it means that out of all the people in the database who are your age and had the same rate of smoking, exercise and eating potatoes as you did, 4 in 100 had heart attacks in the next five years.

life expectancy
No, I will never live to see the Leafs win a Stanley Cup. (Photo: Big Life)

The life expectancy calculator says I will likely live to be 89 years old. It also asks if I want to live long enough to see the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup, but I don't think anyone will live that long and besides, it's not in their database.

Manuel hopes people will use it to modify their lifestyles; in fact, it's not very easy to use for that purpose. I went back and changed the alcohol and exercise inputs; you can see it change your heart age as you change the variable. It told me that I really should drink less and get more light exercise like walking, but then I knew that before I started. For people who want to dive deeper, there's an algorithm viewer that "shows how each predictor contributes to overall risk" — but it's complicated and I couldn't figure out how to use it.

There are some caveats. CBC medical reporter Dr. Brian Goldman points out that "the calculation of your heart age and prognosis are not based on objective data such as your average blood pressure, your blood sugar or your cholesterol and triglyceride levels," all the stuff your doctor looks at. He also is surprised that it doesn’t even ask how long your parents lived. But even he's paying attention to the results, and plans to eat more carrots, fewer potatoes, and walk more.

You can try the calculators here; they're based on Canadian data, but lifestyles and diets are pretty similar outside of the poutine that shortens Canadian lives, so the results should be relevant. And while it's currently set up for Canada, "it can be adapted for any of the 100 countries around the world that collect health survey data."

But no matter where you live, be sure to watch those potatoes!