I’ve been Biobanked. And perplexed by tablespoons.

I went  to Hounslow yesterday, to donate my body to medical science but without the bother of dying first. I'm taking part in Biobank UK. I may even have ‘taken part’ as they may make do with what they have, and not get in touch again.

Biobank UK is a joint government, research council and charity sponsored study ‘improving the health of future generations’, by collecting data on the health of 500,000 UK people currently aged 40-69, to see how it is affected by their lifestyle, environment and genes.

I was number 300,000th or so to be recruited (give or take the odd tens of thousands) so whilst I was certainly selected I’m still only special to my Mum and Dad. It’s not like winning the lottery. Besides no lottery winners have to breathe into a cardboard mouthpiece, take their shoes and socks off to have their fat content determined, pee into a pot, fill seven phials of blood and spit saliva into a tube – ‘Up to the red line if you can, please, Chris’ – I couldn’t, without anything to drink for the previous four hours.  This was from a weak spot in my common sense rather than a special torture meted out by the Biobank team.

The West London Biobank base is at Falcon House in Hounslow. It is an anonymous office block with a steady stream of visitors – few of whom looked like ‘usual suspects’  for visiting a town centre office complex. Biobank is a very slick operation. If you are organising a sizeable proportion of 500,000 people you have to be. You’d never guess that inside was a cast of around fifty people per day, who go there only once, like me, plus staff who go there every day to measure, interview and question them.
 
Up to the third floor, in the lift, so no convincing evidence of my active lifestyle on display there, then. Hello to the jolly reception desk jockeys.
 
Down that end are banks of computer terminals with a selection of 40-69 year olds hunched over what turn out to be reaction speed tests, fruit and veg. questionnaires and a blue box/orange circle memory test, amongst a great mass of others. It looks like a language laboratory in a school that specialises in science. No one says much.
 
At this end other 40-69 year olds are being directed to sit down, get up, meet a new technician, go into a cubicle with them, get measured in various ways, come out, sit down where directed, get up and meet a new technician, go in a different cubicle, get measured in various ways…. And so it goes on. 40-69 year olds ‘helping the health of future generations’ with armfuls of coat, assorted baggage, a USB stick clutched in their paw and doing as bid, darting from the blue chairs into the blue cubicles, then from the green chairs to green cubicles and from the grey chairs and on and on until every eye has been crossed and every tea counted.
 
The tests?  Visual acuity. (Incidental observation to self: the time will soon arrive for some help with distance sight) Respiratory tests. Height, weight and blood pressure. I’m surprised to discover I’m an inch taller than I have ever been previously. Menopausal growth spurt? I'm already contribuing new things to science….. Mind you Georgie did tug on my chin to straighten my back so perhaps I can’t help coming out of her cubicle just that bit taller than when I went in. Hand grip strength. Mood. BMI. Ankle ultrasound. Questionnaire about my diet. Reaction time testing. Memory tested with the Blue box. Orange circle. Blue box. Orange circle. Orange Circle! Yes! NOT caught out by the Blue box instruction.  
 
The tablespoons were perplexing. How many tablespoons of vegetables do you eat per day?  None. As in I don’t think I own a tablespoon and I'm certain I have never measured vegetables with one. I eat well over half a kilo of vegetables and fruit a day. How do I convert that? No idea. Choose a big number of spoons and hope I’m not ejected for being unlikely.
 
The hearing test now. So headphones on. And off again. Check red toggle on right ear. Yes. Headphones on again. I have now matched myself to the diagram. I couldn’t hear some of the test, which will have been the point. The instruction was to guess the answers you couldn’t hear. I have no interest in guessing. I put in zeroes which I couldn’t hear the numbers that were (allegedly) being recited. Mind you this might look like a guess to anyone looking at the results so I’m not making a point with much .… point.
 
The USB stick was given in to each technician at each separate cubicle visit,  by every 40-69 year old and then returned with new data added. At the end Biobank UK retained the USB stick but swapped it for a piece of paper with the (very) edited highlights of one’s results. I have my new towering height of five feet three inches, my heel ultrasound results, BP, BMI and intraocular pressure plus one or two other things.  I know nothing about my blood, urine, genes, memory, hearing and, basically, the results of most of the tests. I never will and neither will my GP.
 
However, my results will be matched with my unfolding accumulation of medical history and undoubted decline (!) over the years ahead. Is there anything in my blood or behaviour that might predict what happens, and how? This kind of research is vital. World changing. People quietly filling in questionnaires or muddling though tests and surveys helped to reveal the connection between smoking and lung cancer, for example, and cot death and sleeping position; diet and heart disease; alcohol and some cancers; obesity and other cancers and so on.

I won’t benefit directly and came home in acute need of a cup of tea but my current good health is founded on messages generated from previous similar studies the world over.  

I was never going to say ‘naah’ when invited to take part, was I?