Can your face reveal how long you'll live?

  • Article by: TARA BAHRAMPOUR , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 12, 2014 - 4:07 PM

Those wrinkles may reveal more than your past; they may show your future.


Washington Post photos show staff writer Tara Bahrampour now, far left, and in later years via computer technology.

Imagine that an insurance underwriter comes to your house and, along with noting your weight and blood pressure, snaps a photo of your face. And that those wrinkles, mottled spots and saggy parts, when fed into a computer, could estimate how long you will live.

Facial recognition technology, long used to search for criminals and to guess how a missing child might look as an adult, may soon become personal. A group of scientists is working on a system that would analyze an individual’s prospects based on how his or her face has aged.

“We know in the field of aging that some people tend to senesce, or grow older, more rapidly than others, and some more slowly,” said Jay Olshansky, a biodemographer at the University of Illinois at Chicago who came up with the idea. “And we also know that the children of people who senesce more slowly tend to live longer than other people.”

The research is still in its early stages, but the idea of using facial recognition technology has prompted interest from insurance company executives who see potential for using it in determining premiums, Olshansky said. There’s also a potential benefit for individuals: The technology might prod them to change their health habits before it’s too late.

The technology involves using a computer to scan a photograph of a face for signs of aging. It would analyze each section of cheek, eye, brow, mouth and jowl looking for shading variations that signal lines, dark spots, drooping and other age-related changes that might indicate how the person is doing compared with others of the same age and background.

As the United States skews increasingly older, research into extending life span and, in particular, increasing the number of healthy years is a boom topic for public and private entities. Google last fall announced Calico, an enterprise focusing on aging and associated diseases., for which it has been recruiting top scientists. Another organization, Human Longevity Inc., headed by the well-known genomics researcher Craig Venter, launched this spring with plans to build a database of human DNA sequencing to tackle diseases of aging; it raised $70 million in an initial round of funding. And the National Institutes of Health launched an unprecedented collaborative initiative across 20 of its 27 specialized institutes to address aging and longevity.

The implications could be staggering. Not only will living to 100 become more common one day, experts say, but the quality of life in the final decades might also be drastically improved. Increasing life expectancy by 2.2 years by slowing aging would save $7.1 trillion in disability and entitlement programs over 50 years, said a paper in Health Affairs co-authored by Olshansky, who is also a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging.

Longevity scientists say the key to extending healthy life lies in focusing on aging itself rather than on aging-related diseases. Even minor progress in slowing the aging process would be more groundbreaking than major progress that tackles just one illness, they say.

“Aging is not such a deep part of our biology that it can’t be changed,” said Steven Austad, chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “All this stuff seemed like science fiction a few years ago, but now we have it, at least in mice.”

Olshansky conceded that even if face aging is found to correlate with longevity, there will be outliers. For example, U.S. presidents tend to age visibly faster in office but generally living longer than average. However, he said, for the most part a face is a window onto a person’s overall health. He said, “The face picks up a lot of risk factors for health, such as tobacco smoking (wrinkles around the mouth); excessive alcohol consumption (larger nose); and excessive exposure to the sun (early brown spots and wrinkling) as well as stress.”

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