Now on sale: simple tests that might reveal your “biological age.” They’re based on Nobel Prize–winning research — but are they worth a nickel, much less the hundreds of dollars that companies are charging?
Using a blood sample, the tests measure the length of your telomeres, the DNA “caps” on the ends of chromosomes. Like the plastic bits on shoelaces, telomeres keep important genetic material from fraying. Longer is better: Short telomeres have been associated with an increased risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
But telomeres are no crystal ball. “It’s silly to say this will tell you your life length,” says Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, in May’s Nature magazine (she shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres). Nevertheless, Blackburn, who cofounded a company that’s making one of these tests, says the results can give you a better picture of your risk of a variety of serious ailments.
Still, protecting telomeres may be a matter of common sense. For instance, it looks like smoking and obesity whittle away at them. Consuming high levels of omega-3 fatty acids may lengthen them. Psychological stress shrinks telomeres, but regular exercise and meditation may help rebuild them. And a study in cervical-cancer patients suggests that psychological support through counseling can lead not just to a better quality of life but also to more substantial telomeres.
Bottom line: At this point, knowing your telomere length is likely to be more interesting than useful. You might be better off investing in a yoga class or new walking shoes. As for Dr. Blackburn, “I’ve learned a meditation technique,” she told New Scientist. And “I exercise as often as I can.”