You know how many candles will be on your next birthday cake — but your cells may tell a different story.
Aging can show up as physical changes within your tissues. Measuring these changes can tell you your biological age, giving you a sense of how quickly your body is aging. If you’re lucky, your biological age will be lower than your chronological age (the number on the calendar). However, habits and lifestyle choices may make your body seem older than it actually is. The good news is that you can slow down or reverse aging processes to help your body get “younger”.
Biological Age: The Basics
As you get older, your cells and tissues collect damage that can affect the way your body works. This is why conditions like dementia, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and lung problems become much more common with age. The younger your cells — or the less age-related damage they stockpile — the less likely you are to develop health issues and the longer you may live.
Your biological age is closely linked to epigenetics (the study of processes that affect the way your genes work). If your genes are like an ingredient list in a recipe, describing all of the things that make up your body, epigenetic changes are like the instructions explaining how to mix everything together. Epigenetic processes turn some genes off while activating other combinations in response to what’s happening around you.
As you get older, you may be experiencing the following on a molecular level:
- DNA methylation changes — DNA methylation is an epigenetic change that shuts some genes off, preventing your cells from using them. Patterns of DNA methylation typically change as your cells age.
- Gene changes — As a result of DNA methylation or other epigenetic processes, your cells flip on and off certain genes, which go on to make your cells operate differently than before.
- Telomere changes — Telomeres, structures found at the ends of pieces of DNA, can also help measure biological age. The older you get, the shorter your telomeres tend to get.
- Metabolism changes — How your body breaks down nutrients and how efficiently it burns energy can shift as you age.
These changes affect how well your body works. A higher biological age means a greater risk for age-related diseases.
How Do I Know My Biological Age?
Multiple tests can help estimate your biological age. These tests, often called epigenetic clocks, read “biomarkers” in your blood and use computer algorithms to analyze whether the changes in your cells resemble those of someone older or younger than you.
You can do a biological age test by ordering a test kit online. For example, Index by Elysium Health analyzes DNA methylation patterns from cells in a saliva sample, while NOVOS Age and myDNAge require a tiny blood sample to look at your genes. These tests often cost a couple hundred dollars and aren’t typically covered by health insurance.
If you find that you’re aging quickly, you may feel more motivated to make changes that preserve good health. You may also be able to use this information to estimate your risk of different age-related conditions. For example, if you’ve had several family members who have had heart attacks and you find that your biological age is higher than you’d like, you could take extra steps to look out for warning signs at a younger chronological age.
Slowing Down or Reversing Biological Aging
Some aging processes are driven by genetics — they were encoded into your cells before you were born. However, other changes are influenced by your environment, including your behaviors and choices.
To improve your biological age, you may want to try:
- Making good diet choices — The foods you eat can affect aging processes. Research has found that people who eat more vegetables, fruits, and fish and consume less meat and alcohol have a younger biological age.
- Exercising — The more physically fit you are, the younger your cells. To slow down the clock, increase your muscle strength by lifting weights and improve your cardiovascular fitness with aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping.
- Correcting vitamin deficiencies — Popping a multivitamin may not matter much for your biological age if the vitamin levels in your body are already within normal ranges, but it may be a good idea if you’re running low on certain nutrients. One study found that African Americans with low vitamin D levels had less biological aging after they started taking a vitamin D supplement.
- Quitting smoking — Cigarettes and other tobacco products greatly speed up aging. The good news is that this is reversible, and quitting smoking can return your biological age to normal levels.
Living a generally healthy lifestyle can also make a difference. One study introduced 43 men to a comprehensive program consisting of healthy behaviors related to diet, exercise, sleep, and relaxation practices. Over eight weeks, the men’s biological age dropped by an average of three years and three months.
While your biological age isn’t a crystal ball that guarantees what your future will look like, it may provide some clues as to whether you’re aging more slowly or more quickly than expected. This could allow you to make some lifestyle changes that keep you feeling young!