En español | There's nothing like living through a pandemic that's more dangerous for old folks than young ones to make you think hard about aging. According to the CDC, the death rate from COVID-19 is 10 times higher for those ages 65 to 74 than for those ages 35 to 44 — a startling difference. Then again, we all know from our high school class reunions that there are 68-year-olds who are still hiking the Appalachian Trail and 68-year-olds whose only path lies between the fridge and the recliner.
Me, I'm somewhere in the middle. Which is why I was intrigued to learn about a test that promises to tell you, not your chronological age, which is to say the number of years since you were born, but your biological age: how your body's holding up in comparison to the bodies of everybody else.
It wasn't an opportunity I instantly jumped at. While it's true I eat a lot of broccoli, I also drink a lot of wine. I smoked cigarettes for 25 years. (Hey, everybody did back in the day.) And while I still play volleyball at age 63, I'm paying for it — or for something — with arthritis. There are times I feel ancient — for example, when I contemplate heading outside for my daily pandemic walk now that winter (brrr!) is here.
On the other hand … suppose I'm doing okay at the job of bodily upkeep? What if my former and current bad habits have miraculously been counteracted by good genes or good luck? Wouldn't that be something to celebrate — and to crow about if we ever have high school reunions again?
Measuring your lifespan
So-called “biological age” has become a thing because scientists have been busy uncovering new ways to measure the rates at which different people grow old. Remember the women in Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl photos from the Great Depression — those careworn young moms who looked to be 50 or 60? Life takes a toll, it turns out, both externally and internally. But just as wrinkles can be addressed with Botox and gray hair with Clairol, scientists say there are ways to slow down your biological aging rate.
First, though, you have to know what it is. Biological age can be calculated by measuring certain “biomarkers” that scientists know correlate with getting older — changes like chemical alterations to DNA that affect the ability of your cells to successfully replicate.
"Nearly all major diseases — heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, type 2 diabetes — occur at an increased rate as we age,” says Eric Verdin, M.D., president and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Sure, some of our aging rate is encoded in our DNA — in other words, it's genetic. We all know families where everybody seems to live to be 103. But according to Verdin, more than 90 percent of our lifespan is determined by our behavior — what we eat, how active we are, how stressed we are, even how much we sleep. This is the modifiable stuff. (While Verdin's estimate may be on the higher side, widely accepted medical studies of twins suggest that genetics likely accounts for only 20 to 30 percent of someone's chance of surviving to age 85.)
Right now, says Verdin, medicine is organized on the principle of “one organ, one doctor": You see a cardiologist for your heart, you get treated; two years later, you get cancer, you see a cancer doctor; two years after that, you get macular degeneration. But all these conditions are related to the aging process, so the ability to track and modify that process promises health benefits across the board.
To that end, Morgan Levine, a Yale assistant professor of pathology and epidemiology who's an adviser of bioinformatics at a life sciences company called Elysium Health, has devised a test called Index. It assesses the biological rate at which you're aging by analyzing more than 100,000 biomarkers across your genome. Why not, in this age of analytics? “As a society,” Levine points out, “we're tracking everything. My watch tracks all my activities. But the most important thing to track is your aging.”
I'd been tallying mine in birthday candles, but okay, I was game. So I signed on to have Elysium send me a little glass vial with thorough instructions on how to prepare my saliva sample. Since I'm not a natural spitter, this took some doing, and a shirt change. But at last I stuck the vial in the accompanying return mailer, sent it off — and was immediately filled with dread.
The problem was, if the news Elysium came back with was bad, I was gonna have to do something. Change things up. That, Levine says, is the point of it all. (Well, that and Basis, a supplement Elysium sells to increase your body's supply of NAD+, a molecule that some research indicates can reverse cellular decay.)
And some of the practices that have been scientifically proven to slow senescence, aka the aging process, such as caloric restriction, aren't exactly appealing. Who wants to live longer if you can't put butter on your bread?
Still, aging researchers insist, their goal isn't simply to prolong life, notwithstanding those creepy tech moguls transfusing themselves with young people's blood. When you study centenarians, Verdin says, you find a common pattern: Those who live to be 100 or more only start to be sick around age 95. “They spend a smaller fraction of their lives affected by medical conditions.” Modifying our rate of aging could help us not just live longer, but better. Who would say no to that?
It takes Elysium four to six weeks to process tests, so I had plenty of time to ponder what I'd do if my biological age turned out to be 120, which some mornings seems plausible. Still, when I got the email saying my results were available in my online account, I didn't hesitate to click. There it was! My biological age is … 62 years, one year behind my actual age.
Included with that number was a host of information on the science behind the test, accompanied by charts and graphs and references and tips on various steps I can take (diet, exercise, healthy relationships) to stay biologically spry. It was all interesting and handsomely presented, but as far as I was concerned, I had all the info I'd need: I'm biologically younger (barely) than the calendar says. So why change anything?
According to Levine, some 70 percent of us have biological ages within five years of our chronological ages. But the difference can be as much as a decade — and altering your behavior may affect your aging rate. As tests like Index become more common, prices will come down — for Black Friday weekend, for example, Elysium will be running specials that cut hundreds of dollars off the costs of Index and its Basis supplement. As scientists continue to refine their ways of measuring biological age, we can look for more personally tailored analyses to pinpoint, say, the effects of smoking and environmental exposure, or even (yikes!) liver health. All this will allow us to test ourselves more often and quantify our responses to different supplements and regimens.
Personally, I feel that between cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, bone density and all the rest, I've already got more than enough to keep track of. (My husband, who wears a watch just like the one Dr. Levine does, is more into the potential tracking and analytics.) Still, it's nice to get a little hard data to tell me my efforts — both now and in the future — may be helping me cheat Father Time, at least a bit.