Why your birthday cake may be lying about your body's real age
New study on aging in young adults discovers that some people's 'biological age' progresses faster than others.
As American country music legend Garth Brooks once lamented in song, "I'm much too young to feel this damn old." Chances are, many of us have had either similar feelings or the complete opposite. With social networks giving us photographs of friends and family on a daily basis, it's easy to make quick physical comparisons to others of similar age. Some look the same, while others look younger or much older. Ever wonder why?
An international research team from the United States, United Kingdom, Israel and New Zealand believe they are closer to discovering the science behind this phenomenon – and possibly one day, the means to slow it down. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers showed how biological age can vary wildly even among people of the same chronological age.
Over the course of 20 years, the team studied the vitals of 1,000 adults born in 1972 or 1973 in the city of Dunedin, New Zealand. These measurements were taken after the participants' 18th birthdays and included kidney, lung and liver health, dental health, cognitive function, and the length of telomeres (the caps at the end of chromosomes that have been found to shorten with age). Once the study group hit 38 years old, the researchers went back and reviewed their data, coming up with a pace of aging for each individual.
What they discovered is startling. While the biological age of most in the group followed closely to their chronological age, others had biological numbers closer to 30 and even as high as 60. Not surprisingly, those in the older camp scored worse on tests involving balance, coordination, and problem solving. When researchers asked Duke University undergraduate students to assess age based on the participants' photographs, those who biologically trended older also looked older.
"This research shows that age-related decline is already happening in young adults who are decades away from developing age-related diseases, and that we can measure it," said Dr. Salomon Israel, a researcher and senior lecturer in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of Psychology, and a co-author of the study.
While genetics play a role, the researchers noted that environmental factors have likely the largest influence. A study from the University of North Carolina last year found that chemicals in groundwater and industrial emissions, as well as ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, excessive calories and even stress may all play a role in accelerated aging.
The researchers are hopeful that by providing young adults with their true biological age, they may be able to spark an intervention for those aging faster than their peers. The goal is to tackle aging head-on by avoiding diseases down the road, rather than treating them after they occur. Even better, they add, many of the vitals gathered in the study are already widely chronicled by family doctors. All that's needed next is an easy way for doctors to quantify such information into one simple biological number.
Or, should all of the above not come to pass soon enough, just remember comedian George Carlin's advice on aging: "If you're going to lie, lie big."
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