Gene science will predict the date of your death

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The Life assurance and private health industries are in turmoil over how best to deal with the dramatic advances in genetic science, including potentially the most significant of all, the ability of people to discover the date of their own death.

So concerned is one life company about the growing conflict between its industry and genetics that it has thought twice about using a planned advertising campaign referring to advances in the field.

At the moment, people can be tested for specific inherited diseases, such as Huntingdon's Chorea and cystic fibrosis. But it is the discovery of telomeres, the part of a chromosome thought to act as the body's "timer", which has sparked the crisis.

Scientists will soon - "within five years" is one expert's prediction - have the ability to develop a test of telomeres to measure someone's natural lifespan, assuming they do not succumb to smoking, overeating, alcohol or an accident.

After the furore over the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the likelihood of people obtaining their lifespan measurements is seen by geneticists as the next great scientific controversy.

A recent specially convened meeting between senior scientists and insurers entitled "Human genetics - uncertainties and the financial implications ahead", was described as having produced "heated argument" by its organisers, the Royal Society.

Desmond Le Grys from Munich Reinsurance, one of the world's leading re- insurers, told the gathering that "widespread genetic testing which would lead on to early diagnosis and treatment of disease, will improve population mortality. However, knowledge of the results of a genetic test may lead to a change in buying habits for life assurance."

People with a poor profile rating would be likely to take out life assurance, while "the super fit would be reluctant to take up life insurance at all".

Professor Steve Jones of the University of London, who launches a new book this week, said such tests would be increasingly commonplace. The life companies and private health insurers were worried on two counts: how to deal with people who are likely to suffer from a long, expensive illness, and how to cope with people who are told they can look forward to a ripe old age.

"It is a double whammy: those who need it, buy it and those who don't need it, don't buy it."

On a human level these developments have still more profound consequences. Even Professor Jones said he would be nervous of having his likely life span assessed.

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