We all know people who seem far younger than their age, which feeds into the idea of biological age. It’s often in the news these days and all over social media.
Some people who are fighting high-profile battles with aging are also doing something I call “health flexing.” I also called these folks by another possible new term, “health celebrities.”More on these neologisms in a minute.
Is there something real going on here with fighting aging? These health celebrities often say they’ve reversed their biological ages.
There is some evidence that people who look much younger than their chronological age could live longer on average. So is biological age a real and important thing? If so and one can lower it, does that lead to rejuvenation? Will you look younger too?
Let’s dig into this.
What is biological age?
Biological age is the idea that your tissues and cells don’t have to age at a given rate and that the speed of biological change does not have to match your number of years, which is your chronological age. As a result, your body’s physiological state or age could be younger or older than the calendar says.
A forty-year-old person might have a body that is more like that of a thirty-five-year-old. Or conversely, if things haven’t gone well, the body of a fifty-year-old.
This makes inherent sense because both genetics and environment impact how we age.
A perfect storm of unfortunate genetic factors that accelerate aging and an unhealthy lifestyle can clearly speed up aging. There are even progeria syndromes where people age in fast-forward no matter how they live or what life throws at them.
But on the flip side, can lucky genetics and optimizing your environment including lifestyle slow aging?
An anti-storm of anti-aging? This is the big idea of reversing biological age, which seems to be the most common definition of rejuvenation.
How is biological age measured?
There are two major problems with how this is all playing out.
First, biological age is being hyped all over the place.
In some cases, I believe the hype is intended to make money, but in other cases, it might be a matter of intense personal belief in anti-aging efforts. Stir in some natural fear of dying and it’s a recipe for false hope.
How would we even know for sure that certain people actually are biologically younger?
Their cells and tissues are more like 35 instead of 50 or 55? How would you tell?
Telomere length testing and DNA methylation assays
This points to the second problem, which is technological. The issue is how people have been supposedly measuring biological age.
One of the main assays being pitched, telomere length testing of blood cells, is highly questionable for this purpose.
Telomeres are protective structures at the ends of our chromosomes. They generally get shorter as we age. However, people can have very different inherent telomere lengths. Also, in any given person telomeres can vary substantially in the many cell types in the body.
It’s also possible that the telomere length of your blood cells, the usual source for these biological age measurements, is relatively not so meaningful for all the other hundreds of kinds of cells in your body. Different types of cells will have variable telomere lengths.
Probably for these reasons, there is no well-established reference telomere length for any given age. There are just trends. It’s not scientifically rigorous to say something like, “My telomeres are 5,000bp long so I’m biologically a 50-year-old instead of an 80-year-old.”
Biological age is sometimes measured in other ways such as assessing patterns of modifications of our genomes called DNA methylation. There is also marketing of blood-based “age tests” related to metabolism. While there is some reasonable science in this area, it’s not clear how it applies to large, diverse populations of people.
For example, I doubt there’s a universal “young DNA methylation profile” that works for the diverse populations of the world. Some researchers in this space would probably disagree with me and point to some recent papers. I’m still skeptical.
As I said earlier, we’re also seeing more folks claim publicly that they are biologically far younger than what the calendar or their birth certificate says.
How do they supposedly achieve this claimed rejuvenation? Sometimes it’s just personal regimens like intermittent fasting, caloric restriction, etc. For certain people there might be some logic to those efforts. However, specific products or companies are also often claimed to be the key to the reversal.
This brings in the idea of health flexing.
Some health-flexing high-profile figures are quoted in the media as saying that they’ve dropped their biological age in a big way through certain regimens. Here are just two recent examples:
- I’m a 63-year-old doctor who has the biological age of a 40-year-old… this is my morning routine
- A Harvard genetics professor who only sleeps 6 hours a night and doesn’t exercise every day swears 3 habits helped reverse his biological age by a decade
Why would doctors and/or professors be saying stuff like that to the media? Do they enjoy being perceived as younger or being kind of celebrities? We might call them health celebrities.
How much of this arena is about selling tests even if indirectly? Is some of it just health flexing?
What exactly do I mean by health flexing?
Health flexing is when someone publicly touts their own health, especially in traditional and social media. However, it can also happen between individual people. It’s kind of the same way someone might brag about their McMansion house or kids’ grades or sports achievements, fancy cars, etc.
I’m biologically young(er)?
What this all means is when health celebrities health flex by saying stuff like, “I’m 50 but biologically 35 years old” we should take that statement with a grain of salt. At this point, telomere length or a battery of blood marker tests do not reliably tell someone their biological age. That could change but where we are now it’s not a real thing in my view.
The other major point to make here is that when it comes to telomere length, longer is not necessarily better. For example, cancer cells can have very long telomeres. So even if some expensive health regimen does lengthen your telomeres, we can’t be sure that’s a good thing in the big picture.
In fact, some folks with inherently super-long telomeres end up having major health problems or dying because of it. If you have super short telomeres that’s not so great either, but for most of us our telomeres fall somewhere in the hazy middle ground.
About those health celebrities
If you take a look at my recent article on billionaire Bryan Johnson, you’ll see that he’s spending millions of dollars and working very hard to be healthier to try to be younger too.
Not everyone can do that.
Johnson’s efforts have become almost like a reality TV show. Interestingly, recently he reportedly said for him that getting “young blood” transfusions from his son did nothing helpful. As a result, he’s scratching that off of his list of stuff to try. I’m scratching my head at even trying it.
Johnson has now reported getting “young Swedish” bone marrow too. Why? How?
Professor David Sinclair has become something of a health celebrity too. Just search for the David Sinclair diet or the David Sinclair podcast on Google or YouTube and you’ll see tons of content. I recently reviewed a new paper by David Sinclair and had some issues with the media surrounding it, particularly in the context of all the anti-aging hype.
Biological age research data
Let’s come back to the science. What about actual data on measuring and reversing biological age?
Recently, I found almost 500 articles on PubMed with “biological age” in the title. Many of them don’t seem like rigorous science.
However, some specific papers have been intriguing even if they’ve been blown out of proportion at times in the press. Certain data are worth pursuing in this space. Changing how we live can impact our health and aging. It also seems like innovative, rigorous research efforts such as at Altos Labs may give us the best chance at meaningfully reducing the impacts of aging and disease.
It’s just that the hype lately is out of control in some cases. As with other cutting-edge science like in the stem cell space sometimes, people can get carried away. They can take a mixed bag of science and make over-the-top claims.
Sure it’s exciting to think about making our cells healthier, having a happier life free from disease, and living longer, but it’s not so simple.
One of the big concerns about high-profile anti-aging efforts is that they can promote iffy health claims and even risky interventions. For example, unproven gene therapies, sketchy stem cell injections, and other potentially risky ideas sometimes pop up in this space. If many everyday people follow health celebrities down such questionable paths, some could get hurt. It may already be happening.
Anti-aging supplements are also big business but may pose risks and at best are probably just a waste of money. Also see my post on stem cell supplements.
Finally, we should also be thinking about this in terms of society as a whole. If while some mega-rich folks are getting nerdy on health and science, they get lucky enough to stumble on something real on the anti-aging front, would that end up helping humanity overall? Including people who aren’t like them?
Meanwhile, life expectancy in the U.S. has been going down after years of climbing.
That’s sobering context too.