‘A health test said my biological age is 41, but I’m only 30’

When I send off my blood sample to GlycanAge, I am smug with anticipation. The…

When I send off my blood sample to GlycanAge, I am smug with anticipation. The blood test is designed to reveal your ‘real’ biological age, by looking at the state of your immune system, instead of your body’s chronological age. Given that I’m fairly fit and healthy, working as a yoga teacher as well as a writer, I eat a balanced diet, and go for two-hour walks each day, I’m convinced that my blood test will come back with a figure similar to my real age: 30. If anything, I secretly looked forward to being told that all my efforts are paying off, and that my body’s biological age was in its mid-twenties.

Only when my results come back, I am told that my body’s biological age is actually 41. Forty one. A solid 11 years older than my actual age. I’m shocked – and annoyed. How can this be? I don’t smoke, I have no underlying health conditions, I’m slim and toned (bar some Christmas indulgence), and I teach yoga! Why is my immune system 41 years old?

To understand it properly, Gordan Lauc, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Zagreb, as well as co-founder of GlycanAge, explains the science behind it all. Before GlycanAge, other ageing tests worked by analysing the length of telomeres (DNA timers that limit the lifespan of a single cell), which are the best marker of ageing on an individual cell level (in other words, your ‘health age’). 

But GlycanAge, which is growing its customer base by 20 per cent month-on-month since it became available to the public in 2019, is different because it looks at levels of glycans (tiny sugar molecules) which correlate directly with the level of inflammation in the body. It means it can give more accurate information about the biological state of the body – something that changes with age, health and life circumstances – than previous tests.

The company, which is well-respected in the scientific community, bills itself as the start of a ‘wellness journey’ where people can use their results to change their lifestyle and improve their health. “It’s a way to give people earlier feedback,” explains Lauc. “When you move from a healthy state to disease, it’s a continuous process where your body is losing its normal function. Normally people go to hospital only when something doesn’t work, then you get diagnosed with the disease. But if you can find the problem early, and measure something to say you’re on the wrong way, then you can do something to avoid the situation.”

A test result like mine shows something is clearly not going well inside my body. But the problem with the test is that it’s impossible to say what the problem is. Glycans are regulated almost equally by our genes on one side, and environment and lifestyle choices on the other. The latter is broken down into: sleep, diet, physical fitness and stress. GlycanAge offers a consultation to try to help people figure out which areas could be an issue, but it all relies on the objectivity of the customer. 

My consultation suggests it could be that Covid has brought more stress into my life, broken sleep (my cat loves waking me up at 5am), and my love of cake. But this doesn’t feel like enough to explain the 11 added years on my biological age. “Genetics is 50 per cent of it all, and your Indian background can explain five to seven of those years,” Lauc tells me, referencing a 2020 study that explains people of different ethnic backgrounds can have different glycan patterns.

It doesn’t necessarily mean people of an Indian background will have a shorter life span, but Lauc says it could be a predictor. Right now, the majority of GlycanAge’s data comes from people of mainly white Caucasian backgrounds, and the company is trying to do more research to investigate other backgrounds and glycan levels. “It doesn’t mean someone’s better or worse, just different,” says Prof Lauc. “Your GlycanAge I guess would be 35, if put on an Indian background.”

This is better than 41, but it’s still not 30. The only way to truly know why I have these remaining five years on my biological age is to try changing factors in my lifestyle, and then having another test. The company offers different subscription price plans so people can do this, tracking their levels of glycans as they adapt their lifestyle patterns. An annual test costs £276, while two tests a year costs £492 including consultations. “At home you use a scale to see your weight. GlycanAge is like that – it’s feedback that you get which reveals inner secrets,” says Lauc.

But Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and clinical director of NHS partner booking system Patient Access, points out tests like these can be problematic. “GlycanAge is based on the glycosylation (attachment of glycans) to your immunoglobulin G (IgG), the most common antibody in your immune system. This may give a general indication of the level of inflammation in your body, but there are many other factors which affect your general health,” she says. She stresses that blood is only one indication of risks – it’s also important to take into account factors such as blood pressure, ethnicity, weight/height and chronic conditions.

Another issue is that it could lead to stress. “For some people, getting a biological age result that is higher than their actual age can stimulate them to make healthy changes,” says Jarvis. “For others, though, it can lead to anxiety and may even cause them to believe that healthy steps they have already taken are pointless. By contrast, a low biological age might lull others into a false sense of security.”

I can relate to this; when I was given my biological age, I found myself worrying about my health in a way I never did beforehand, and considering one of my issues could be stress, this felt counter-productive. “It may be stressful,” acknowledges Lauc. “But it’s more dangerous to continue in the same way. It’s just a warning signal, not a diagnosis. It’s not saying you’re ill, but you’re on the wrong path and if you don’t change something, you might become ill.” 

Jarvis advises patients to never rely entirely on the results of a test like this, instead consulting a GP if they’re concerned, and also just remembering to focus on the fundamental principles that increase life expectancy, from regular exercise to a nutritional diet. It’s why I’ve decided to use my GlycanAge test as a reminder to continue staying as healthy as I can, while also making small manageable changes I’ve been putting off for a while (like cutting down on that cake).

I won’t know if it’s made any different to my biological age unless I do another test in six months’ time, but if my age still comes out high, I won’t stress. Instead I’ll remember Jarvis’s advice that “the results only show a small part of the picture”, and if all else fails, I’ll just blame it on my genetics.

Read more: Matt Roberts: the exercise regime that will help you stay younger for longer

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