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Are Your Organs Aging Faster Than You Are?

How to know if your heart, lungs, brain and kidneys are ‘older’ than you are, and ways to slow down biological aging

spinner image cartoon of a heart that is aged with back pain wearing glasses and walking with a cane
Sam Island

If the idea of gauging your organ age seems far out, impossible or irrelevant to assess health, consider that you’re probably already doing it without knowing. Think about that last time you met someone new, took a fresh look at your partner when you awoke in the morning or caught your reflection in the mirror.

Subconsciously you probably took note of their (or your) skin — that one organ we can all see — particularly the smooth contours or lines on one’s face. To be sure, it’s no perfect measure of vitality, but as it turns out, researchers have found that the biological age of organs you can’t see — or the rate at which those organs are aging physically — could help predict a person’s health risks.

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“A good example of how you measure biological age is you look at somebody’s face, and based on thousands of people you have met, you estimate how old they are,” says Tony Wyss-Coray, professor of neurology and director of the Knight Initiative for Brain Resilience at Stanford University. “We can all do that. We never learned it in school, but it’s based on experience. We look at the wrinkles, we look at the eye pouches and maybe the grain of the hair or the loss of the hair, and by taking these measurements together, we estimate this person may be 50 years old,” — or 70 or 80.

When that number is different from a person’s chronological age — how old they are based on when they were born — that’s called an age gap, Wyss-Coray says. When biological age is higher than chronological age, that can be problematic. With organs, that’s where it gets interesting, and can turn deadly.

A new way to test organ age and disease risk

In a recent groundbreaking study published in the journal Nature, Wyss-Coray and colleagues aimed to study organ aging at a molecular level and better understand how it’s linked to disease or mortality risk.

The highly sophisticated approach is similar to what we do in everyday life, when we judge someone’s age based on how they look, Wyss-Coray says. Using machine learning to analyze loads of data, researchers took blood samples from 5,676 adults and measured the levels of thousands of proteins that changed as organs age.

The researchers found that nearly 20 percent of the nearly 5,700 older adults studied had at least one organ that was biologically older than they were chronologically. This was linked to a wide increased disease risk and an overall risk of dying earlier. Researchers found that:

  • Those with accelerated heart aging have a 250 percent increased heart failure risk.
  • Accelerated brain and blood vessel aging could help predict how quickly Alzheimer’s progresses.
  • Patients with a heart that was aging faster than the patient did had an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Higher biological age of kidneys was linked to greater diabetes risk.
  • Accelerated aging of muscles predicted mobility problems (skeletal muscle is an organ).

There’s no simple blood test you can get at your pharmacy to measure the biological age of your organs. Researchers and clinicians say it will likely take years to get an FDA-approved test for that.

But there are stand-in measures or tests doctors use — mainly to evaluate organ function — that provide clues as to how fast organs might be aging. And though certainly there are factors we can’t control, including our DNA and the normal aging process, experts say lifestyle changes can help slow biological aging.

Young at heart

Heart disease is the number 1 killer in the U.S., and age is a major risk factor. The good news? There are many other factors you can control. Although they won't turn back the hands of time, there are things you can do to slow biological aging.

Tests to take: Howard Weintraub, M.D., cardiologist and clinical director of the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone Health, who wasn’t involved in the Nature research, says there are a several proteins the researchers measured that clinicians sometimes check when they order blood work, particularly for heart failure patients.

They have some tongue-twisting names: pro-brain natriuretic peptide B (NPPB), a regulator of blood pressure that increases in response to heart damage, and troponin T2 (TNNT2), a heart muscle protein involved in contraction. The Nature researchers found these two are particularly important markers of heart aging.

The challenge is to recognize this kind of aging before a heart attack or other damage occurs. Doctors who focus primarily on prevention, like Weintraub, have been looking for ways to do this. Weintraub and some others say it may be worth checking TNNT2 and NPPB levels in people who don’t have symptoms.

“If these are elevated, these are ominous markers and ones that deserve further attention,” Weintraub says. “It’s not part of a routine lab test. But if a doctor wants to order it, they’re free to do so.”

Common tests — for blood pressure and cholesterol — already tell us a lot about heart health and disease risk, which are intricately linked to aging. 

What you can do: The American Heart Association (AHA) isn’t waiting for an eloquent test to advocate that people get proactive. In November, the AHA presented a study that found following “Life’s Essential 8” — health behaviors and factors — could slow biological aging.

The eight essentials:

  • Eating healthier — incorporating more fruits and veggies, lean proteins, nuts and seeds
  • Exercising more — 150 minutes per week of moderate activity such as water aerobics or 75 minutes of vigorous activity such as running
  • Getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Keeping blood pressure in check

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Estimating lung age from function

We know lung function declines over the years, but it doesn’t necessarily track with biological age. How you treat this organ could accelerate that aging process and leave you more vulnerable to disease and an early death.

Smoking is the number 1 preventable cause of death in the United States and a real drag on the roughly 17,000 breaths you take a day. Quitting smoking could help keep those overworked lungs younger.

Tests to take: CT scans and pulmonary function tests, though not precise organ-aging measures, show that the lung structure and anatomy change with age, says Albert Rizzo, M.D., chief medical officer at the American Lung Association.

Based on such tests, Rizzo says he has patients whose lungs look younger or older than they are. The pulmonary function test, which checks how well the lungs are working and any breathing problems a person might be having, “estimates age based on the function of the lung, and it may or may not correlate with actual chronologic age,” Rizzo says.

What you can do: When a patient’s lung function is less than optimal, he or she should take immediate steps to address the issue, Rizzo says. That includes quitting smoking and vaping nicotine products, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. “Obesity restricts lung function,” he says.

Follow up with your doctor routinely and report any symptoms, including coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, to determine whether more treatment, such as medications that could improve lung function, is needed. 

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The age of your brain

Although diseases such as Alzheimer’s aren’t inevitable with age, the process of aging remains the “greatest known risk factor,” notes Claire Sexton, senior director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, in an emailed statement.

To complicate matters when studying the impact of a higher biological brain age, there’s a chicken-and-egg challenge: “Does accelerated aging cause increased disease risk, or does disease cause accelerated aging?” Sexton asks. More study is needed to answer this.

Tests to take: Researchers are hard at work trying to create an accessible blood test that can accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s, with hopes of detecting it sooner so treatment could happen earlier. Research published in JAMA Neurology in January found one such test performed as well as a more invasive method, drawing cerebrospinal fluid, to detect the disease.

The test is commercially available for research but not yet to consumers. Experts generally recommend that anyone with concerns about memory loss or cognitive deficits see a doctor for evaluation to better determine if — and what — tests might be most helpful.

What you can do: The Alzheimer’s Association advocates lifestyle changes similar to those recommended by the AHA — where heart and brain health are intricately connected — to protect the aging brain. AARP has identified six pillars of brain health that can help keep your brain healthy as you age. They are:

  • Being social and staying connected with others
  • Engaging your brain by learning new things and enjoying new experiences
  • Managing stress, including by exploring relaxation techniques
  • Exercising — at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity such as walking
  • Making sure you’re getting restorative sleep
  • Eating well, incorporating brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids in foods such as fish and walnuts

The Alzheimer’s Association also suggests pursuing the highest level of education possible, protecting your head by wearing a bike helmet and being careful to prevent falls.

Your kidney’s biological age

Doctors caring for patients with multiple chronic conditions know that what affects one organ concerns others. That’s especially true with the kidneys, where researchers found accelerated aging had a significant impact on metabolic health, which involves everything from cholesterol to blood sugar, heart health to diabetes. As the body’s filter system, the kidneys remove waste from the blood and excess fluid from the body, a critical life-sustaining function.

“If your kidneys are sick, there’s a good chance you have metabolic problems … and that not only will your heart have difficulties but your blood vessels will, and so likely will your brain,” Weintraub says.

The inverse is true too: Make those heart-, brain- and other organ-healthy lifestyle changes, and your kidneys will benefit as well.

Tests to take: The primary method used to check kidney function is called the glomerular filtration rate (GFR) test, which checks for the presence of a waste product called creatinine to determine how well kidneys filter the blood. A test called a urine albumin-creatinine ratio (uACR) is used to check for damage.

In addition to ongoing testing for those with confirmed kidney disease, people with conditions such as diabetes that put them at higher risk of developing kidney problems should receive at least annual screening with these tests, says Joseph Vassalotti, M.D., chief medical officer at the National Kidney Foundation. That regular screening should start immediately when people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and five years after diagnosis for those with type 1 diabetes. 

What you can do: “Generally what people understand is a healthy approach to living — that will help prevent kidney disease,” Vassalotti says. Among the ways to make a difference, he suggests a healthy diet, physical activity, not smoking and better treatment and management of diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

For more, please see 9 Ways to Keep Your Kidneys Healthy.

Act your age

Even though it’s common knowledge people age (biologically at least) at different rates, much work remains to be done to understand why, says Douglas Vaughan, M.D., cardiologist and director of the Potocsnak Longevity Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The institute hopes to do randomized trials to determine if there are ways to slow the velocity of biological aging. “It’s a very exciting time. We’re looking forward to starting those kinds of clinical trials,” Vaughan says. “But if somebody tells you they have the answer today, I would raise an eyebrow.”

That doesn’t mean you should wait for the results before making changes to help keep your organs from aging faster than you do.

“The [Nature] study is interesting because it shows the evidence that there is accelerated organ aging that we can see through proteins,” says Christopher Gold, D.O., a primary care physician at Mount Sinai Doctors Ansonia in New York City.

Even if we don’t yet have tests that provide a number for organ age, Gold says, everyone should work to reverse their risk factors. Experts emphasize that while researchers are learning more about the causes of biological aging, there is plenty you can do today to help slow that process.

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