Ottawa Magazine

What motivates you? Q & A |

Digital Doc


Can fruits and veggies extend your lifespan? That’s the sort of question a new online life-expectancy calculator answers with increased accuracy, thanks to data from millions of Canadians. The calculator is free, it’s used worldwide, and it’s based in Hintonburg, home to the 16-member Ottawa Hospital mHealth Research Team. Their Project Big Life online calculator takes minutes to complete and includes questions about diet, exercise, smoking, and more. It even measures the effect of air pollution (a loss of 0.9 years for a 20-year-old living in downtown Ottawa). In return, it spits out an age: your life expectancy. The researcher­s, led by Dr. Doug Manuel, use data from federal agencies such as Statistics Canada, as well as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (it helps that Manuel holds positions at ICES and StatsCan). Barbara Sibbald caught up with Manuel, an intrepid year-round cyclist, at the team’s house-turned-lab on Stirling Avenue.

Where did you get the idea for Project Big Life?

In 2012, we did a report with Public Health Ontario, called “Seven More Years,” about health behaviours and the burden of mortality. Someone said, “Why don’t we do a web thing and go right to the individual, rather than only addressing policy-makers and public health?” We didn’t ask permission, and it wasn’t budgeted; we kind of did it quietly on the side. Then when we published “Seven More Years,” it made the Globe and Mail, and the servers crashed. There were 50,000 people in the first hour. And that’s how it started. Over a million people have used the online calculator now.

How scientific is it?

It’s tied to the research. Life expectancy is from the Canadian Community Health Surveys, where about 100,000 people report how they are living and we follow up and see who dies or develops, say, a heart attack. It’s predictive analytics. Our new algorithms are based on millions of assessment­s and follow-up. For me, as a researcher, it’s been really great because you have that image of the person online and how it’s going to help them. It helps remind us of how public policy is going to affect the individual­s.

I found myself going back and recalculat­ing my life expectancy with healthier choices: more exercise, more vegetables. Do you think the calculator changes behaviour?

There’s controvers­ial evidence about whether the calculator will change behaviour or not. Our goal is to engage people in discussion. It’s a risk assessment: if your doctor takes your blood pressure, that act doesn’t lower your blood pressure — you have to do something else. If you do the calculator, that’s not going to change things.

Do health profession­als use it?

For sure, clinics use it as their risk stratifica­tion, but then it’s coupled with the diabetic prevention program or other things. As a family doctor, I think a lot of informatio­n could have been provided by the patient beforehand using the calculator. Then when the patient comes, we can help them right away to access a special clinic or service, like the Heart Institute. In patient encounters, it really makes the conversati­on more tangible and real. I’m amazed at how many of my patients don’t eat fruits and vegetables.

What are your plans for the calculator?

We’re working on version 2.0 to make it more adaptive. If you say you used to smoke, it will ask you for more details about your smoking. We’re looking at developing more around food and dietary patterns. We want to link to sodium and other things. We’re moving toward artificial intelligen­ce. It’s more customized, more personaliz­ed.

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