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Testing how old you really are, deep inside

health-and-fitness Updated: Oct 16, 2011 00:11 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Whoever says life begins at 40 clearly doesn’t spend much time with teenagers. My teen son is convinced anyone 30 or older is way too old to do anything worth doing. We — that includes everyone 30 and beyond — may as well lock ourselves in an old-age home, flush the key away and spend the rest of our incredibly worthless lives watching reruns on television as we restlessly wait for death to end the ennui.

Okay, this may be too dramatic a representation of teen worldview, but you get the gist. The truth is that after the age of 30, the indestructibility all of us are born with starts to wither like Superman in a kryptonite cave. By 35, you start worrying about your weight, your cholesterol and your biological clock. By 40, it’s your liver, blood pressure and falling hair that make you seek salad platters, gyms and expensive haircuts. Rare — thankfully so — moments of introspection may even make you wonder how much time you have amongst the living before you turn to ash or dust.

Well, if you have $500 to spare, you need worry no more. Researchers in Spain are close to marketing a genetic test that can tell you how fast you are ageing and, by extension, how long you will live. The blood test measures the length of your telomeres — caps on the tips of chromosomes that protect them from age-related damage when they divide — to determine cell age, which is then used to calculate whether your chronological age (your age in years) matches your biological age (how tired and damaged your body really is).

Simply put, the test will determine whether your body is older than you are (very likely, as it appears to be the case of almost all our politicians). The test is based on the idea that although time ticks uniformly for all of us, how fast or slow are bodies age depends on our genes, environment and lifestyle.

Telomeres have long been known to play a role in ageing, with previous studies having linked telomere length and lifespan: the longer the telomere tail, the longer you live. How effectively can scientists now use this information to predict how long you’ll live remains to be seen. They will need to factor in other determinants that can influence telomere length, such as gender (universally, women live longer than men), family history of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancers, smoking and sun exposure.

The length of telomeres is already being measured to predict some diseases. People with the shortest telomeres — shorter than 99% of the population — are at risk for certain diseases, including bone marrow failure and lung diseases, but the test is not popular commercially as it’s too expensive compared to other tests.

All of us look a lot older than we feel, some of us look older than we want to look. The truth is whatever be your age, you want your body to feel or look a decade — give or take a few years — younger. It almost never does. Since you can do little about errant ageing genes handed down by unthoughtful ancestors, you can do the next best thing: whine, or pay exorbitant prices for anti-ageing creams with tongue-twisting ingredients, nerve-deadening botox shots and painful cosmetic surgery that usually makes you look like the walking undead.

Those who want a magic mirror to tell their true age now at least have the option of this very expensive test to determine when they are likely to kick the bucket. And whether it is worth the effort to work at turning back the hands of the body’s clock to make yourself biologically younger, or to simply spend the rest of your days living it up till you die.