The Scoop: Many couples hope for a bright future together, but can’t predict how long that future might last. Project Big Life offers calculators that can help people get a better sense of their health, wellness, and predicted longevity. Researchers behind the project focus on health-related factors — including smoking and exercise — that participants can choose to modify. That means that couples concerned by the predictions can resolve together to make healthier lifestyle decisions today.
It’s no surprise that people who live together often live similar lives. They may eat the same meals for dinner or choose the same evening activity, including riding bikes or watching movies.
That means that, despite their different genetic makeup, couples are often healthy or unhealthy together.
Dr. Doug Manuel, a Senior Scientist and Researcher at Project Big Life, notes how difficult it can be if one partner doesn’t live a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s hard to be healthy when you’re with someone who is on a different path,” said Doug.
But it can be challenging to recognize the ways you’ve become unhealthy. That’s why researchers from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the Bruyère Research Institute came together to create Project Big Life.
The project uses calculators to predict future health and longevity. The algorithms used by Big Life calculators rely on data collected by Statistics Canada to assess health risks for people with particular health profiles. Its Life Expectancy Calculator analyzes data that suggest how long someone will live based on factors that include smoking, alcohol use, diet, and exercise.
Many couples have used the results from these calculators to change their lives.
“The calculators motivate people. They’re working like crazy, and they’re stressed out. They realize that this affects their lives,” Doug said.
For instance, the calculator includes information that may encourage someone to drink less during the week or quit smoking. It also may help someone consider adding more exercise into their routine. Though the calculators don’t offer specific advice for lengthening life, the data they take into account provide a good place to start a personal health assessment.
Predicting Your Risk for Disease
In addition to the Life Expectancy calculator, Project Big Life has developed calculators that focus on three other lifestyle areas — with two more in the works.
The Heart Attack & Stroke Calculator predicts someone’s likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases within the next five years. As with the Life Expectancy Calculator, this projection is based on a user’s response to a set of questions about age, activity level, diet, smoking status, and alcohol consumption. The tool then calculates the percentage likelihood that someone will face a cardiovascular disease in the next five years.
Another calculator considers how much sodium a person consumes in a day. Those who eat processed and packaged food, for instance, likely take in more sodium than the daily recommendation. Health experts recommend consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day.
The Sodium Calculator asks users for specific information about eating habits, including how often someone eats out in a week or a month, and the frequency with which they eat prepackaged meals and snacks.
“Seeing those numbers makes it real for people and motivates them. They may change their jobs or their lifestyle to focus on healthy living,” Doug said.
Another calculator in Project Big Life is the Elder-Life Calculator, which considers several factors to determine a person may be nearing their end of life. These predictions help the individual and his or her family plan for their care.
Next up, Project Big Life researchers plan to launch two diet-specific calculators that will ask participants to consider whether their diet quality is encouraging them to live well.
Calculations Informed by Health Science
Project Big Life uses data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, which collects information from more than 1 million people. Researchers use that information, and other health science research, to create predictions for certain health profiles.
Research on those topics is often too complicated for the general public to understand. So, the Project Big Life team simplifies the data to make it more accessible.
“We use big data. Everything we do on the website is published in peer-review research papers, but we try to make it available to everyone,” Doug said.
Many Project Big Life researchers have used those data-based methods to predict patient health in their clinical practices, but the tools weren’t available to the public.
The team created its calculators for public health purposes, including showing people how much smoking hurts the population. That information can also inform policy decisions that discourage smoking.
The calculators are still used for those purposes, but they’re now offered to people who want to make informed decisions about the future. Women ages 30 to 45 are the most frequent users of the calculators. On a broader scale, some use the calculators to stay healthy, while others use them to get back on track with their wellness.
With an eye toward accessibility, the Project Big Life aims to ensure that participants finish using the calculators. That’s why each calculator balances creating accurate predictions with the time it takes to complete the survey.
“It is hard to find things that are science-based that take less than 40 minutes,” Doug said.
Project Big Life: Helping Individuals, Couples, and Families Make Plans for the Future
Project Big Life’s calculators can predict many different things. People can answer a set of brief questions on their lifestyle habits on the Life Expectancy calculator to see if they’re likely to reach particular milestones in their lives. If they want to live to retirement, they can let the calculator know when they plan to retire.
Partners can also use the tools to make short- and long-term decisions.
“Are you going to live a lot longer than your partner or a lot less? You can use it for retirement planning. Should you have kids? If you wait a long time, you might not be around when your kids get married,” Doug said.
People can also focus on the four factors the calculator considers to change their lifestyles and, hopefully, live longer.
“There is a way to become healthy with the person you spend most of your time with,” said Doug.
But perhaps most significantly, the calculators get couples thinking about their futures. When couples are young, factors like diet and exercise may seem like they can be altered later. But Project Big Life helps couples think about how their lifestyle habits are affecting their longevity now.
“They’re thinking not only about now but also about their remaining life together,” said Doug.