Death is inevitable and unpredictable, but some researchers are hoping to change at least one of the two.
Is it possible that science can help us predict when we will die?
The Scent of Death
There have been all kinds of claims about people or even animals that can sense looming death. One famous instance is Oscar the therapy cat.
Oscar became famous after a New England Journal of Medicine article described his uncanny ability — he was able to predict 25 deaths when the article was published. By 2010, it was 50 deaths. Oscar’s presence in a patient’s room was a signal to staff at the nursing home that the inevitable was near. Oscar would make his way up onto the lap of a patient, laying with them until their last breath.
Is this a death-predicting sixth sense or just coincidence of a cold cat cuddling for warmth? Oscar isn’t alone. There also have been dogs who have been able to sense diseases in humans, such as cancer or epilepsy. Scientists think it comes down to smell. Certain pheromones are given off in situations like impending death or cancer that animals are able to pick up on.
Speaking of Smell…
Researchers also have found another sign that has so far done a good job of predicting death — our own sense of smell. In a study focused on older adults, they found that those who are unable to identify certain smells — things like fish, mint, or roses — had a higher rate of mortality over the next five years.
“We think loss of the sense of smell is like the canary in the coal mine,” said the study’s lead author Jayant M. Pinto, MD, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago in a public statement published by EurekAlert. “It doesn’t directly cause death, but it’s a harbinger, an early warning that something has gone badly wrong, that damage has been done.”
Testing for Death in the Blood
Blood has been another place that scientists have turned for answers. A study published in PLOS Medicine believes that blood samples can predict the window and possibly manner of death. The study tested more than 17,000 healthy people.
Within that group about 600 had died within five years. The scientists examined the blood of the 600 dead and found four common biomarkers — substances in the blood that are usually abnormal. The biomarkers are an indicator a person would die of either cancer, cardiovascular disease, or a number of other fatal diseases. Those with the abnormal biomarker scores also were five times more likely to die within a five-year time span.
The study is not without criticism though, as the biomarkers only show an association with a predicted death, not a direct link.
A Numbers Game
Other researchers have tried to solve the age-old question with statistics. Using data from the Center for Disease Control, a statistician created an interactive graph that visually shows how you are likely to die, based on gender, race, and age. For most of your life, death is likely to result from external or accidental causes. At about 60-65 it becomes more likely to die from cancer, circulatory problems, or infection than external/accidental death.
Of course, all the above tests give us an idea, but they aren’t concrete answers. Life is too random to truly know how we will die. And even if we could predict exactly when we will die, would we really want to know?