This column, as you know, looks far beyond the rest. While they are “advizing” you about doses of vitamins, antioxidants, magnesium and hormones (yes, I do that too), I’m telling you what’s coming down the turnpike and it’s fascinating and actually rather grand in concept.
It’s learning about ourselves in completely new and hitherto unthinkable ways. We are entering the age of the health avatar; a computer simulation that has all of YOU inputted as data: your age, sex, activities, lifestyle, genetic profile, MRI scans, existing diagnoses, allergies and everything else that goes to make up a unique human being called YOU!
From that information, the program will be able to make predictions about what will happen to your health as the years go by. It will tell you the probable outcomes, maybe even when you are likely to die, but also what will happen to you if you decide to modify your health profile (lose weight, take up exercise, switch to vegetarian and so on); how many EXTRA years you will live, and such like.
And of course these things will get smarter and smarter as they learn. It won’t be comfortable, some of it may be scary and some of it, even I as an advanced thinker, utterly reject.
What am I talking about? The Virtual Physiological Human! That’s you in a computer; you are a simulation; a test model; your own alter-self or what these days we call an “avatar”.
It’s kind of exciting. It’s already here; it just needs smartening up before it will be a reality for us all.
Beyond Smart Phones
A lot of us already use smart phone apps to record our eating, track our weight, exercise activity and quality of sleep. It’s a way in which we are already engaged with our health. But this goes way beyond that.
The Virtual Physiological Human is a massive initiative, backed by the European Union, with 2,000 plus researchers and an initial budget of over $300 million. They calculate that within 10 years we will have access to our electronic doppelganger or twin, which will be loaded with data about the state of our health, medical history, and the lives we lead.
There are other initiatives too, like the project HumMod at the Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, which consists already of 5,000 variables, including measurements of blood flow, heart and brain activity, bone scans, blood lab work, organ profiles and more.
I find it pathetic that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is “considering” large-scale simulations of this sort—but only for… you guessed it: drug testing.
Pros and Cons
What I find exciting is that the conventional thinkers are beginning to grasp the idea that we are all unique; that nobody is average, as I keep telling you!
Moreover, there is finally an admission that diseases are complex; nobody gets sick for just one simple reason in one small part of the body. Disease is a whole-organism effect. You can’t pin conditions like heart attack, diabetes, cancer or osteoporosis on just one part of the body. Yes, not even “heart attack”; the idea that only the heart would be affected and the rest of the blood vessels in your body are OK is absurd; but that’s the kind of junk thinking that has entered orthodox medicine.
Take osteoporosis: it’s not just “thin bones”. It hinges on the person’s age, lifestyle, hormonal levels, activity levels, nutritional profile and even deteriorating eyesight (I’m thinking of falls, which are often fatal to elderly people with osteoporosis).
So this new approach—even if it’s a bit scary techno—is going to be a massive learning process.
On the down side, it troubles me that they are only considering physical factors in health and disease. That ignores the most common cause of sickness: stress.
Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to program when a person encounters divorce, bankruptcy or bereavement, yet these are among the most profound influences of a person’s real-time health.
But it may be possible to monitor cortisol levels. Or maybe even just have the system check with the person: “How has your day been?” for a bedtime estimate of stress levels.
How Will We React?
One big question is: will this level of insight into our lives be welcome? You’ll probably have to wear electronic sensors and be continuously monitored, for the system to build up its picture of YOU. Yet people are notoriously resistant to intrusion from machines and hoarding of personal information in computers.
Even if we get beyond that, how will you feel if the prediction is that you will probably get, say, lung cancer? Will it make you fight, to defeat the condition? Or will you (as I suspect many will), think, “Oh to Hell with it” and smoke and drink your way to the grave?
It’s known from other research that giving people information about their health risks produces disappointing responses. People feel very motivated to improve, short-term. But it seems to wear off fast and people lapse back into their reckless or even dangerous habits.
Seeing things visually, appreas to have more impact. For example, showing people a makeover of how they will age, offering them a mirror image with added wrinkles, sagging jowls and grey hair, did prompt responsible and beneficial changes.
So it seems that visual avatars have a powerful impact. But what about the computer avatar?
Workers in the field, predictably, are optimistic. Knowledge is power; people will respond. They will take responsibility for their profile.
Jane Wardle at the University College of London wasn’t impressed. “Giving people more details about future risk has never produced the effect that people hoped,” she told the British journal New Scientist.*
But Hal Herschfield at New York University found that people shown aged (photoshopped) decrepit pictures of themselves and then offered $1,000 to spend on buying a gift, partying or putting away retirement money, tended to choose the latter.
So maybe people do respond at some level; just not always the logical way.
I welcome this kind of advance because, ultimately, it will tech all of us about aging and health. It will teach doctors and scientists a new viewpoint on our nature and, considering how unworkable the existing view is, this can only be a good thing.
As to the likelihood it will change patient behaviors, I too am not so sure. I will say this: if you need a computer projection of how crocked up you are going to look and feel in ten yours from now before you’ll motivate yourself to take action, you are in a sorry state.
You shouldn’t need fear of the future to empower yourself to live a wonderful, vibrant NOW!
I’ve laid it out repeatedly in my copious writings, what you need to do. Join me in a fabulous UN-old age. I’m seventy next year, look 50 and feel 30. Why not you?
*New Scientist, vol 221, No. 2960, 15 March 2014, p. 49