Who hasn’t looked in the mirror this past year and wondered how fast they’re ageing? We all know that our faces can give away our worst excesses, but for those who dare to look deeper, recent advances are allowing scientists to measure our biological age with ever greater accuracy.
The emerging science of epigenetics has unveiled how our lifestyles interact with our genes, affecting how fast we age, and our risk of diseases such as cancer or heart disease. Studies have shown that factors such as stress, diet, sleep, weight and whether we smoke can switch our genes on and off – and these effects can be passed on to your children and grandchildren too.
Now tests are arriving which analyse epigenetic markers, which sit on the outside of a person’s genes and change over time, to estimate their speed of ageing.
“Your epigenome is changing all the time and underpins most diseases and how we age”, says Dr James Brown, Head of Genomics at fitness supplement company Bio-Synergy.
He gives the example of the BRCA genes – variations of which dramatically increase your risk of certain cancers such as breast cancer. “Just because you have a BRCA variation doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer – but epigenetics can turn it on, which can subsequently create breast cancer”, says Dr Brown.
“If you have a heightened epigenetic age that’s a good barometer for how your health is: if you have a very high age it’s when, not if, you get ill.”
Bio-Synergy offers a £219 test which analyses the epigenetic markers on genes related to memory, ageing, hearing and eyesight, as well as inflammation levels, and gives an overall “age” for each area after comparing your markers to a dataset of people of various ages. If both your chronological and biological age are 40, this means your epigenetic markers on ageing genes are similar to the typical 40-year-old in the dataset.
I don’t smoke, eat far more fruit and vegetables than what’s recommended, exercise every day and (almost) always stick within the guidelines on drinking, so was intrigued but quietly confident when he offered me the chance to try it out. In the autumn of last year, I spat into a tube and sent off a sample of my genetic code.
When the results arrived via an app on my phone in April, it was not the glowing report I was hoping for.
While my chronological age is 26, my biology puts me at almost 30, with my eye age at 30.5 – meaning I may be more at risk of losing my sight as I get older. My “memory age”, at least, is a healthy 23.8, and my hearing is 24.5.
The DNA results I get with the epigenetics (the test offers insights on dozens of metrics affecting your appetite, weight, heart, gut and bone health) give clues as to why that may be happening. According to the test, I have genes that make me more prone than the average person to suffer accelerated ageing caused by stress. I did feel like a year of lockdowns had aged me and now it seems I was probably right.
Brown says I’ve actually got off lightly: he spoke to one woman whose biological age was estimated at 20 years ahead of her real age after a year of dealing with Covid as well as the illness of a loved one.
It’s hard not to panic at the news I seem to be living “fast”, but how accurate can this test be? There are plenty of experts who are wary about the advent of home epigenetic testing kits, given that the science is still in its infancy.
“I don’t think you should be very worried”, says Dr James Flanagan, a reader in epigenetics at Imperial College.
He says a biological age that’s anywhere between four years above or below your chronological age is considered to be within the normal range.
He is very wary of paying any attention to the epigenetic “ages” the test gives for memory, hearing or eyesight, given the lack of research on those areas so far, but says the test’s overall score for biological age may be worth thinking about if it comes out much higher than your real age. For example, if your epigenetics say that internally you’re 60, but according to the calendar you’re only 50, then your risk for cancer might be closer to that of a 60-year-old. “It’s not perfect but that’s the concept”, he says.
Some research is showing that epigenetic testing has promise in predicting disease risk and longevity. A study by Columbia University and the University of Exeter used a blood test and other measurements such as waist-hip ratio to calculate the speed of ageing of a group of adults, all aged 38. Seven years later, those whose tests had suggested they were ageing the fastest all performed worse in tests of balance, co-ordination and cognition.
But Dr Flanagan says we’re still learning exactly how our lifestyles interact with our genes: “While we know healthy eating and exercise correlate with healthy epigenetic ageing, we don’t know that they cause that.”
The best evidence so far is on smoking, he says. The epigenomes of non-smokers are different to that of smokers, but once people give up the habit, it slowly returns to normal. “We can detect that you smoked 30 years ago [from your epigenetics] so it lasts a very long time,” says Flanagan.
Other factors like diet and stress haven’t been studied in as much detail. While we can say that people who eat poorly tend to have higher epigenetic ages, there have not yet been trusted intervention studies on this – where someone has their epigenetics studied before and after taking up a healthy diet. This type of study would be crucial to prove that slower epigenetic ageing is caused by a better diet, says Flanagan. “It’s like horoscopes”, he says. “You can correlate as much as you want, but you need to prove it.”
My results have nevertheless got me thinking about what I can do to bring down my epigenetic age. Brown says that as much as you can fast-forward it with a bad lifestyle, you can also rewind the clock by taking better care of yourself.
Exercise is key, and you don’t need to do much of it: he recommends at minimum a 20-minute walk first thing in the morning, and another after you finish work in the evening. Anything that lowers your inflammation levels will help so he suggests tweaks to your diet. “Processed food is inflammation in a packet”, he says. “Eat fresh fruits, salads, vegetables and get Omega-3 in fish oil, krill oil or algae.”
He adds that finding ways to reduce stress is also important – whether it’s meditation, exercise or enjoying hobbies. Poor sleep is strongly correlated with a poor biological age, and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity apparently – which is bad news for me as a chronic insomniac.
Animal studies have also shown that calorie restriction or intermittent fasting can slow ageing too. “Definitely reduce calorie content from processed foods”, Brown says, also advising to eating only between the hours of 10am and 7pm.
Other than that, the usual health advice applies: papers on halting biological age suggest eating more fruit and vegetables, as well as fish, could help. The jury’s out on whether that’s worth £219 to know: “You don’t need a genetics test to tell you to exercise and eat vegetables”, says Flanagan.