Aging is a funny thing. A gray hair here, a lost set of keys there—that burgeoning wrinkle between our eyebrows. From youth, we're taught and frightened into understanding, observing, and accepting the term "aging" as deterioration—a "lessening" that takes place in an outwardly physical manner and benchmarked by such stigmatized symptoms as a nuanced mark of pigmentation or something as benign as the suppleness or sag to our face.
We've instilled a fear of the exterior signs of aging, but are we truly scared of aging, itself? We know what it "looks" like (though we've been taking some serious issue with this lately) but how about what aging feels like? For instance, if I had to guess, a wrinkly knee might more likely invite disdain and condemnation than a rickety one, so on and so forth. And while yes, I realize that's an unlikeable generalization, I'd be surprised if it turned out to be all that inaccurate.
When I look around, I see a world that's transfixed with aging on an astonishingly superficial level, and I'll be the first to admit I've actively contributed. Over the years, I'd cozied up to the notion that my age in every sense of the word—biologically, cellularly, and physically (appearance-wise)—would line up like a neat queue of dominoes. Once one fell, sayonara, they'd all go, and I'd accepted that.
So, never once did I expect to find myself in a real-life Benjamin Button–esque situation—a movie that I love, yes, but an existence that I want? Hard pass. And though this has the makings for 20-page biology report, I'll try to keep it simple: My telomeres (aka the protective caps found on the ends of my chromosomes) are significantly shorter than they should be, or at least, what one would expect them to be at my ripe young age of 24. The elephant in the room: According to my telomere length—and from the inside looking out—I'm 52. Confused? So was I. Keep reading for a look into telomeres, my results, and the interesting takeaway.
As mentioned above, our telomeres are the protective caps found at the ends of our chromosomes. Their job: to protect our genetic information during cellular division, and according to TeloYears (the at-home testing system I used), they basically act like the plastic tips on shoelaces—helping to keep the laces (i.e., chromosome ends) from prematurely fraying or tangling.
The idea of telomeres and their relationship to aging is steeped in Nobel Prize–winning science (Fun fact: TeloYears was co-founded by scientist Elizabeth Blackburn who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her contribution to telomere biology.) And though hotly debated in relation to its prediction of a person's true health and longevity medically speaking, scientifically, the idea does have some validity. After all, telomeres are typically their longest when we're born, and with age (due to repeated cellular division), they gradually shorten. However, this is also where things get interesting.
In addition to that normal wear and tear—aging on a cellular level—the length of our telomeres can also be negatively impacted by oxidative stress, a cellular condition TeloYears describes as (deep breath) the "cellular condition that describes the cumulative damage done by an imbalance between the body's free radicals and its ability to detoxify their harmful effects through antioxidants."
And while this type of stress occurs naturally through our body's metabolic processes over time, it can be impacted both negatively or positively by other such factors as diet, alcohol, environmental toxins, pollution, or cigarette smoke.
In short, with age and repeated exposures, our telomeres gradually shorten—a process that's likened to a slow clock–like countdown: "At a certain point chromosomes in the cell will reach a critical length and can no longer be replicated," TeloYears explains. At this point, they reach "cellular senescence," or the cellular equivalent of aging.
So now that we have the scientific lingo out of the way, let's get into the nitty-gritty, like why, for instance, at 24 years old I took the test in the first place, what my results were, and what it all means.
1. The Test
To be honest, this test did not go as planned—far from it. I first heard about telomere testing through social media when certain health and fitness gurus I follow were getting tested. I was intrigued and immediately did a research-heavy deep-dive. Sure, we're all aware of those telltale physical signs of aging (gray hair, lines, etc.), but does what's happening inside our bodies always reflect that? Apparently, not necessarily.
At 24 (and in good health as far as I know), there wasn't any urgent need to find out how old my body basically thinks it is, but I was curious, and to be honest, I thought the testing process would make for an interesting story. Little did I know that the results (quite literally) almost knocked me off my feet—and not in the positive way that I had been expecting.
I try to exercise at least four days a week. I eat cleanly, I rarely drink, I don't smoke, and I don't live in an overly polluted area. Thus, when my testing kit arrived in the mail (equipped with a small pink lancet for a finger prick, blood collection strip, transport tube, and things like gauze and bandages), I had my co-worker quickly prick my finger without much of a second thought. I packaged up my sample, placed it in the mailroom outbox and didn't give it much of a thought for the next three weeks. Never would I have guessed my results would say I was older than my 24. If anything, I thought they'd report that I was younger.
2. The Results
When I received my (very large) packet of results about a week ago, I was excited if not slightly nervous. "Wow, how embarrassing would it be if my results say I'm like 70 years old," I jested to my co-worker, Kaitlyn. So, as I hurriedly unpacked the papers and packets, desperately searching for a number 24 or under, you can imagine my reaction when I saw I was only about 18 years off my sarcastic marker. In fact, ask anyone in the office, but I'm pretty sure I screeched. And for the record, I'm not a screecher. "52!?!?!?!?!" I asked incredulously.
Immediately, my mind was racing: The test was rigged, the test was inaccurate, they mixed up my results with someone else's, this is simply a ploy the company uses to freak people out so we buy into the idea, and so it went.
Except, of course, these are all unlikely. So after taking a deep breath (and admittedly wondering if there was wine anywhere in the office), I sat back down and took a closer look at my results:
Actual Age: 24 years old
TeloYears Age: 52 years old
Your Results: "Your Average Telomere Length (ATL) is 0.82 (T/S ration) which puts you in the 3rd percentile. This means that your telomeres are longer than 3% of women your age. "
And then in bold: "You are 52 years old in TeloYears. Based on the length of your telomeres, you are OLDER than your actual age."
No, objectively there is absolutely nothing wrong with the age of 52. However, in relation to my actual age of 24 and the healthy homeostasis, I thought I had been maintaining, I was shocked. And honestly, super worried.
Though there is still additional research to be done on its medical efficacy, there is reliable counter-research that has linked shortened telomere length to the potential of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and even a shortened lifespan. At 5 p.m. on a Friday, that's a hard pill to swallow. At 24 was I already halfway to death's door? I know that sounds dramatic, but to be transparent, that's the frame of mind I was in.
3. A word on claims + Credibility
"Decades of research published in scientific articles has shown that shorter telomeres are associated with many age-related diseases and mortality in general. Researchers have also studied how certain lifestyle, genetic, environmental, and other factors are correlated with telomere length," TeloYears says. And according to the company, knowing your telomere length can provide some helpful perspective regarding such factors, which can encourage some positive lifestyle changes.
"Although we may be unable to halt the aging process, there may be things we can do to protect or even lengthen our telomeres to help slow the process down."
And while it would be easy to point fingers at the company and call them biased or even self-serving, TeloYears make it almost impossible. Not only does it link to countless credible studies and research from all around the web, but it's also so transparent in its results, openly communicating that in no way do results explicitly indicate such things as how long you have left to live or replace the necessary diagnosis, screenings, or treatment plans related to diseases and other medical conditions. Instead, the company provides a lot of really helpful information and tools to support you in forming a comprehensive self-assessment, plus actionable steps to take in the future.
4. The Gameplan
According to TeloYears (and plenty of science-back studies found all over the internet), telomere length can be associated with lifestyle factors like diet, stress, physical activity, and sleep. As I mentioned, my test results came with a wealth of information and tools, one of which was a pretty intricate self-assessment regarding the above four factors. And as I began ticking away at my answers, I started to notice some patterns:
Diet: This is where I excel. I actually love to eat healthily and not to gloat, but my responses scored perfectly—in other words, no problems here. However, I basically bleed coffee, which is probably something to consider down the road in consideration to stress and anxiety.
Stress: So, this is where I noticeably started to hiccup. Though I take a yoga class from time to time (this won me some points,) I have a history of some anxiety and depression (something that runs in my family), and though I now have the job of my dreams (literally), in the past year I've had two major moves of residence—the first across country, the second, across state—and changes in occupation. I also struggled with an eating disorder in high school, which may contribute to factors of both mental and chronic stress.
Physical activity: This one is tricky. Similar to almost every other human being, I spend the majority of my day sitting at my desk staring at my computer screen, and I live in a city (hey, L.A.) that requires a lot of quality car time. Therefore, although I try to exercise at least four times a week, I live a largely sedentary lifestyle. However, on a positive note, by mixing up my workouts (cardio, strength training, yoga, etc.), I'm doing myself some favors.
Sleep: Yikes, another wakeup call. On average, I typically log five to seven hours of sleep each night. And to be honest, most nights it's five or six, which puts me at the very, very low end of what's recommended for my age (anything between seven and 11.) Additionally, I have a late-night Netflix (aka screentime) habit and typically find myself working on my laptop in bed each night. Luckily, once I do fall asleep I generally have pretty good quality sleep. So at least there's that.
The plan: In a perfect world, I would be able to overturn each of these lifestyle factors to work in my favor. I would continue to eat healthy, exercise daily, fit in plenty of walks and yoga classes, sleep for more than nine hours, and live a blissfully stress-free life. However, that's not realistic, and I won't pretend like it is.
But now that I'm aware of some factors that could be affecting my shorter-than-expected telomere length, I can work to incorporate some intentional changes in my life. (Knowledge is power, after all.) For instance, trying to get at least seven hours of sleep each night, taking more yoga classes, spending more time with friends doing the things I love, not working from bed at night, and taking more opportunities to stand or get up walk around a bit throughout the day at the office.
TeloYears recommends taking the test again in six months after implementing changes to slow the shortening process, and yes, even lengthen your telomeres. Still in shell shock from the first testing round, at first I was hesitant. Would another test yield another batch of disappointing and frustrating results? However, after giving it some thought, I'll probably give it another go. I know that there may not be any significant changes, but if anything, it's a chance to create some incentive and accountability around a few of my new goals.