Wait, how old are you? The lowdown on genetic testing and your biological age

New Age
Photography by Carlo Mendoza. (Styling by Michelle Burca for JudyInc.com)
New Age
Photography by Carlo Mendoza. (Styling by Michelle Burca for JudyInc.com)

With genetic testing, the question “How old are you?” is taking on new meaning. Rani Sheen finds out her biological age.

I’m staring at a password-protected PDF file that has arrived by email, thinking, “What if I’m a 30-something in a sexagenarian’s body?” I have the password, but I’m hesitating because the information within is potentially significant: It will tell me my “biological age,” as opposed to my chronological age, giving an idea of how fast my body is aging. The results of a blood test I submitted to at Sha Wellness Clinic in Spain three months earlier, this number was arrived at by measuring my telomeres—which sit on the ends of every chromosome like a protective cap, guarding the crucial genetic information inside—and comparing the results to a database of other test subjects. Although I don’t have any major health complaints, generally feel pretty good and, at 34, don’t go to the liquor store without ID for fear of refusal, I can’t help but imagine finding out that my body is speeding toward dicky knees, 5 p.m. dinners and walkers before its time.

“The aim is not to get people to live to 95, it is to get them to live longer than 50 without health problems,” said Dr. Vicente Mera months earlier, in his gleaming office at Sha. I was squeezing in a genetics counselling appointment between macrobiotic cooking workshops and Pilates classes. Mera, a specialist in internal and anti-aging medicine with the jovial manner of an infomercial salesman, explained that there’s a period when we can do pretty much anything to our bodies without immediate effects—stay out all night, do drugs, drink a bottle of vodka with every meal. “At a certain age, you’ll start to see problems—in Spain the average age is 50.” He believes this outcome is based roughly half on genes, half on lifestyle, and while we cannot change the genetic profile we are born with (yet), adjusting diet, exercise, stress and sleep can make a significant difference. It’s a timely concern. While our lifespans keep growing longer (Canadian women live to an average 83 years as of 2009), chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease are rampant: Three out of five Canadians over 25 live with one, and four out of five are at risk of joining them.

We’re all familiar with Angelina Jolie’s genetic test results. The poster celebrity for DNA sequencing opted to have a preventive double mastectomy after learning she carried the “faulty” BRCA1 gene, and in doing so she whipped up a storm of interest in all kinds of genetics testing. 

Rather than searching for a specific gene, the test I took measures the length of telomeres, which shorten as the organism (i.e., me) ages, eventually exposing the chromosomes and the DNA they contain to degeneration. When that happens, incorrect signals may be sent to other cells, resulting in dire physiological misunderstandings.

The three scientists who discovered telomeres’ role in cell degradation (which goes by the rather lovely term “senescence”) won a Nobel Prize for their efforts in 2009. Recently, shorter telomeres have been associated with depression, susceptibility to colds and childhood poverty, and they have been shown to get longer in obese weight-loss surgery patients.

The telomere test, which involved a vial of blood and a 144-point questionnaire, has its detractors within the medical community. “I think it’s done more out of curiosity,” says Jill Davies, who worked on Harvard Medical School’s international initiative the Personal Genome Project. Davies is director of the genetics testing program at Medcan Clinic in Toronto, which does not offer the test. “It almost falls into what we call ‘recreational’ genetics. It’s interesting, but what does it really mean…and what can we do about it?”

Offered as part of an anti-aging package at Sha (for 1,000 euros), biological age estimation is just the beginning of what can be gleaned. A full panel of genetic tests costs four times as much, and may reveal your susceptibility to breast cancer, obesity or neurodegenerative disease, as well as your response to various interventions. Mera described an obese client whose panel showed he was affected more by activity level than by caloric intake, so he left with instructions to eat whatever he wanted but exercise for an hour every day. Armed with this information, clients receive a holistic prescription for lifestyle changes, supplements (such as astragalus, a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine that has been linked with telomere length in clinical studies) and treatments designed to ward off a not-so-certain fate. “We don’t want to give people a problem; we give them a solution,” said Mera. If stress is a major contributor to troublesome gene expression, a stay at Sha must count as a dose of preventive medicine. Nestled on Spain’s southeast coast, it’s as glossy as a five-star resort, but beneath the infinity pool lies a state-of-the-art wellness centre where treatments range from reiki to heavy-metal chelation to sleep therapy using nocturnal polygraph diagnosis.

Sha VP Alejandro Bataller says most people are here to work on their health, not their tans. His father, Alfredo, opened the resort in 2008 after finding that natural therapies and nutrition helped him heal after a cancer diagnosis, and developed its programs with holistic health experts including Michio Kushi, who’s referred to as the “father of macrobiotics.” Recent guests have included Barbra Streisand, Donna Karan, Donatella Versace and the Azerbaijani royal family—presumably all the private jets in the world don’t mean much if you feel like crap.

Back in Toronto, when I finally open the PDF, it informs me that my estimated biological age is 30.55—15 per cent younger than my actual age. It’s a calculation of my percentage of short telomeres (which is in the “normal” range) and median length (roaring ahead in the 95th percentile). Hours later, Mera calls to discuss my results. “Congratulations!” he cries. “If everything continues this way, you are not only going to live longer, but you’re going to be a nonagenarian. You would survive all your friends, all your relatives!” This is welcome news, if slightly alarming. He says I stand to gain 10 years of life beyond the average due to my genes and lifestyle. Usually, he delivers less cheerful results, because many of his clients are motivated by serious health complaints.

While Davies says the desire for genetics testing is growing, only a select few can afford to explore it. “I think eventually everyone will have [access to it], but we’re about 10 years out from that because we can’t really interpret a lot of the data,” she says. “To make it into the mainstream there needs to be a whole re-education of [physicians]. It’s an area that evolves so quickly that for your regular family doctor to stay on top of all the advances is just not realistic.”

Where it’s available, Mera believes testing offers motivation to change, to slow the pace of aging and prolong wellness for as long as possible. He has seen telomere length grow after lifestyle tweaks, suggesting the aging process can be reversed at the genetic level. “At the end, everyone wants to win the lottery,” he says. “We think that knowledge is power.”