Science Is Making It Easier Than Ever To Predict Our Own Deaths
What does that mean for our (real and virtual) lives and afterlives?
In October, Apple ID announced a new “Digital Legacy” program designed to designate “legacy contacts” for users, in the event of their demise. The statement carried with it an asterisk (*) meant to alert customers that the new tech was not yet online. The result can be seen here, a sentence that reads: …in the event of your death…coming later this year. It’s not as meant, of course. But it is also indicative of something that is really happening: Science is making it easier than ever to predict our own deaths. What does that mean for our lives, and our after-lives?
For most of human history, death has been the thief who comes by night. Prior to advanced medicine, you wouldn’t know if you had a lurking heart defect or clogged arteries. Frankly, we still often don’t know — but with the advent of genetic testing, some diseases may not be predicted from afar. The best example is the BRCA gene test. Instead of the usual mammogram, which can only tell you if you do (or do not) have cancer, this test alerts you of the possibility many years in advance.
Doctors use DNA analysis to identify changes in breast cancer “susceptibility genes” — BRCA1 and BRCA2. The likelihood of developing breast cancer dramatically increases if there are problems with these genes, and the patient can find out years before any actual cancer appears. But what are we to do with this information?
In 2013, actress Angelina Jolie elected to have a risk-reducing mastectomy because she carried an inherited mutation in BRCA1. According to a scientific report in Nature, her public announcement led to a 250% increase in referrals of women with a family history of breast cancer for similar treatment — something they have called “the Angelina Jolie Effect.” Granted, no test is perfect; as the Mayo Clinic reports, a positive result means you have increased risk, a negative might mean you don’t have the mutation or don’t have it yet, and sometimes the test identifies anomalies that doctors don’t really know much about. Given family history, it might make sense to have something as drastic as risk-reducing mastectomy, but this isn’t the only disorder we now have the ability…