A simple blood test could warn young people they are likely to develop cancer or heart disease… decades in advance, say scientists.
The groundbreaking technique estimates their risk of a premature death – over the next 40 years, according to new research.
It measures how quickly red blood cells, or erythrocytes, settle at the bottom of a test tube. A faster than normal rate indicates inflammation.
The study of 18 to 20 year olds found mortality rates increased by 36 percent among those with a high ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate).
They were followed up to the age of 57. In particular, deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease rose by 78 and 54 percent, respectively.
Corresponding author Dr Elizabeth Kantor said it offers hope of prescribing medications or advising lifestyle changes that help prevent the illnesses.
She said: “Results demonstrate the need to better understand the role of sub clinical early life inflammation in relation to later-life health outcomes.”
They were based on 106,120 Swedish military conscripts born between 1952 and 1956.
They underwent physical and psychological examinations and provided blood samples and were tracked for death until January 1, 2010.
Dr Kantor, an epidemiologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, New York, said: “Inflammation is implicated in various diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD).
“Despite increasing interest in the role of childhood and adolescent exposures in later life disease, little is known about the long term implications of early inflammation.”
The participants were ostensibly healthy and inflammation was measured by ESR, she explained.
This was categorised as low (under 10 millimetres per hour), moderate (10 to15 mm/h) and high(over15mm/h).
Dr Kantor said: “The threshold from moderate to high ESR corresponds to the clinical cutoff for normal ESR among adolescents and men in this age group.”
During the period of observation there were 4,835 deaths including 1,105 and 874 due to cancer and CVD, respectively.
Dr Kantor said: “This study used a blood marker of inflammation to assess the association of inflammation in late adolescence with death among a group of apparently healthy men who had blood drawn for compulsory conscription in the Swedish Army and who were observed up to age 57.”
There were also 280 deaths from alcohol and drugs and 1,502 caused by suicide, traffic collisions or falls. But no statistical link was identified between these and ESR.
Dr Kantor said: “In this large study, we observed inflammation during late adolescence to be positively associated with premature mortality due to cancer and CVD.”
The exact underlying mechanisms are unclear. But inflammation has been implicated in the development of both cancer and hardening of the arteries – known medically as atherosclerosis.
Dr Kantor went on: “These data highlight the existence of detectable markers of premature mortality at an early stage of life.”
The link between high ESR and premture death remained after taking smoking into account, which increased the risk of cancer and CVD.
Dr Kantor said: “Results suggest that ESR among ostensibly healthy men in late adolescence marks something beyond that captured by manifested adolescent health conditions.”
Currently, doctors can attempt to predict whether a patient is going to die in the next year.
But predicting a patient’s risk over the next three or four decades is much harder to do.
It could lead to healthier lifestyles – and enable specialists to improve how someone is treated for any potential medical condition.
The analyses published in JAMA Pediatrics only included men. It “may not be generalisable to women,” said Dr Kantor.