NORWICH, United Kingdom — No one wants to think about the possibility they’ll suffer a disability in the future, but researchers in the United Kingdom say the signs may be hiding in your blood. A team from the University of East Anglia finds that certain biomarkers which appear in a simple blood test can actually predict if a person may face a disabling condition within five years.
Making things worse for some patients, researchers add a person’s income can also play a role in this uncertain future. According to the study, high-income earners are more likely to see a general practitioner (GP) when health issues arise. This wage gap isn’t just leading to differences in care, researchers say it’s also taking years off peoples’ lives.
“We know that the poorest people in England miss out on more than a decade of good health compared with the richest,” Dr. Apostolos Davillas from UEA’s Norwich Medical School says in a university release. “We wanted to find out more about the links between people’s social status and their future health – and see whether blood tests could predict future disability and use of health care services.”
What’s in the blood?
The study examined a group of elevated bloodstream biomarkers which are tell-tale signs for various diseases. Researchers say these tests provide an objective measurement of a patient’s overall level of health. Blood biomarkers often reveal disease before symptoms even develop. For example, the level of “bad” cholesterol in the bloodstream can reveal a risk for developing heart disease. Dr. Davillas adds previous studies show biomarkers for stress have a link to a patient’s socioeconomic status; uncovering a possible connection between social inequality and health.
Study authors examined biomarkers from over 5,200 participants in Britain’s Understanding Society study. The team looked at factors including cholesterol, liver and kidney function, and inflammation. These are all part of the body’s response to chronic stress and infections.
Researchers also examined each patient’s level of obesity, their grip strength, resting heart rate, blood pressure reading, and lung function.
“What we found is that underlying biomarker differences are linked with future disability – and that we could actually predict people’s level of disability in five years’ time, based on the biomarkers in their blood,” Dr. Davillas reports.
“We also found that people’s biological health is linked with future demand on healthcare services such as GP and outpatient consultations, as well as time spent in hospital. We tried to investigate the mechanism for why this happens and found that people with impaired biological health may develop disability in five years’ time – resulting in increased health care and social needs.”
What factors are key in determining disability?
Although most health screenings focus on blood pressure and cholesterol, the results reveal these measurements aren’t actually the best for predicting future health issues.
“We found that the markers which matter most for disability progression are associated with lung function, grip strength, obesity, anemia, stress-related hormones and liver function,” the study author explains.
“Indicators such as blood pressure and cholesterol, which are the current focus of public health screening programs, are less useful as predictors of disability. The NHS England Health Check program mainly offers blood pressure, cholesterol tests and BMI measurements every five years to those aged 40-74. But our research shows that a broader set of blood-based biomarkers should be considered for public health screening programs.”
The results also reveal people with higher incomes are the most likely to receive treatment for their medical problems. Davillas suspects this is because people earning low wages have less time available to them to make arrangements to see a doctor.
Finding answers and saving money
Researchers believe dried blood spot sampling, collected using filter paper and a finger prick, offers health professionals an easy and non-invasive way of carrying out a variety of blood tests at low cost.
“We also focused our study on people who were apparently healthy, so they wouldn’t normally be prioritized by the health care system. We hope our findings could lead to better policies for prevention strategies – which could potentially help the NHS save money… We hope our findings will help lead to policies to secure more equal health care opportunities,” Davillas concludes.
The study appears in the journal Economics & Human Biology.