Focus on Biological AgeMay 11, 2023
“How old are you?” The answer to this common question informs a set of assumptions about you. If you’re a teenager or in your early 20s, you are likely working your way through the education chapter of your life. If you’re in your 30s and 40s, people may presume you are in your child rearing and busy working years. If you’re in your 50s and 60s, one may assume you are in second half of your career or preparing for retirement.
This question also assumes that one is asking about your chronological age. Particularly in mid-life and beyond, this question may be not very instructive for your health. Instead, we should focus on our biological age.
Biological age refers to the body’s internal age, not simply the amount of time a person has been alive. Biological age reveals the efficiency at which the body functions and maps to the corresponding chronological age. There is no one, widely accepted algorithm that computes biological age, but it tends to rely on biomarkers, such as blood sugar, kidney and liver measures, and immune and inflammatory measures.
If you invest in your health, your biological birthday cake may have fewer candles than your normal birthday cake (Photo by Liza Pooor on Unsplash)
David Sinclair, a longevity expert and the co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Harvard Medical School, has a particularly informed view about the importance of biological age. He says that “chronological age isn’t how old we really are. It’s a superficial number. We all age biologically at different rates according to our genes, what we eat, how much we exercise and what environmental toxins we are exposed to. Biological age is what determines our health and ultimately your lifespan. Biological age is number of candles we really should be blowing out. In the future, with advances in our ability to control biological age, we may have even fewer candles on our cake than the previous one.”
A Recent Obsession with Biological Age
With views such as those from Sinclair, more longevity and health fanatics are measuring their biological age and making efforts to improve it. Sinclair, 53, estimates that his biological age is 10 years younger than his chronological age because he abstains from alcohol, eats a plant-based diet and focuses on minimizing his stress.
Dr. Mark Hyman, a longevity expert, claims to be making even greater strides. He is 63 but believes his biological age is 43. His relies on a mix of meditation and other methods to reduce stress, focuses on resistance training, and follows a mostly plant-based, whole foods diet augmented with supplements.
No one appears to be investing more in his biological age than entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. Spending about $2M a year for his regimen, Johnson is 45 but claims he is eight years younger. Certain organs are allegedly even younger: his skin is that of a 28-year-old and his lung capacity is that of an 18-year-old. He maintains a vegan diet, exercises daily and restricts his diet precisely to 1,977 calories per day.
Peter Attia, a Stanford trained physician focused on healthy longevity, is the author of the new bestselling book, Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity. Attia is intense about improving his biological age, too, and he passes along his data-driven approach to readers. Like the other longevity fanatics above, he believes healthy longevity is more malleable than most people think and is focused on preventative measures to stay healthy longer. He refers to this approach as Medicine 3.0. He particularly emphasizes the importance of regular and targeted exercise, including workouts in Zone 2 that put you about 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate, efforts to expand your VO2 capacity and resistance training that focuses on stability.
Investments in health can lead to greater healthspan which may closer align with lifespan (Source: Outlive by Petter Attia)
Where You Live Influences Biological Age
Place has an important role in biological age, even though it is rarely mentioned by these prominent longevity experts. In a recent Forbes article, Joe Coughlin of the MIT AgeLab summarizes the data and comes up with a simple conclusion: your zip code may be the most significant number in determining your quality of life. According to a recent study, factors such as access to quality food, density of alcohol and tobacco outlets; walkability; parks and green space; housing characteristics; and air pollution, all have some impact on life expectancy.
Place can also impact stress, an area of focus for longevity experts. Places that border freeways and busy roads tend to not only have lower air quality but can also add stress through noise pollution and congestion. Where we live shapes our social networks and friendships – those of both strong and weak ties – help alleviate stress. In person connection is particularly effective. Those that live alone face a greater risk of loneliness and the associated health risks.
As we learn more about the factors that influence biological age and as the tests to measure it become more robust, biological age will be a topic of greater common knowledge. As that happens, we will likely hear more about the role of specific diet and exercise regimens to improve biological age. Amidst the flurry of news don’t forget about the role of place. It may be the most important factor of all.
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