A New Test Predicts When You’ll Die (Give or Take a Few Years)

And insurance companies are already interested

Daniel Kolitz
Published in
7 min readJan 23, 2019



Soothsaying was once a fringe pursuit — the purview of psychics, subway cranks, and speed-addicted sci-fi novelists. Today, it’s big business. Abetted by new technology, thousands of salaried STEM types are now engaged in figuring out the future.

Among this crowd, Steve Horvath, a biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles, stands out. He isn’t trying to predict what you’ll buy next or whether you’ll commit a violent crime after being paroled from prison. His project, almost magisterially bleak, is to figure out how much of the future you’ll actually get to see.

In a paper published this week in Aging, Horvath and his colleague Ake T. Lu formally announced a project they’ve been teasing for a couple months now: a “time to death” clock called DNAm GrimAge that they claim can predict, better than any other tool, when a given person might die. It was announced in tandem with AgeAccelGrim, which provides a countdown to the year you’ll develop cancer or coronary heart disease. Horvath said he can estimate the number of cigarettes someone has smoked in their lifetime and predict when they’ll go through menopause.

There’s a whiff of Theranos to Horvath’s promise that “a spoonful of blood is more than enough.”

The research has already captured the attention of the life insurance industry. After all, a solid death date could mean real savings when it comes to pricing policies.

Horvath has been tinkering with his clocks for nearly a decade now. Some of them sound even less inviting than GrimAge, which directly references the Grim Reaper. There’s last year’s “skin and blood clock,” for example, and the “pan-tissue” clock, which measured a person’s age. Its results were fairly impressive, with a median error of just 3.6 years, but the broader scientific community was nonplussed. There are, after all, less cumbersome ways to figure out how old a patient is. (Asking them is a good start.) And so Horvath set out to demonstrate that his method had more significant applications.