A topic of great interest to users, thanks to select media coverage, is whether or not they can determine their biological age using telomere data. A biological age is a number which tells us how our internal biology measures up with our physical years spent on Mother Earth. For example, I may have been alive for 27 years, but I can have an average telomere length which is the same as the 21 year old cohort. The theory is that this means that I am, biologically, 21 years old.
Telomere data has many health and wellness applications, and is extraordinarily useful. However, we believe that telomere data as a measure of biological age is, to some degree, nonsense. In this post, we will overview our conclusions on the topic and why we do not offer telomere length as a biological age. We will also overview what we do offer, and why it is valuable.
A study was recently conducted by Lapham et al which measured telomere length in 100,000 individuals. The results for mean telomere length by age, both male and female, are in figure 7 below.
As you can see, at a certain point of longevity, average telomere length starts to actually rise. The logic behind this rise is that only those who have notably long telomeres to begin with tend to live to such an age (late 70’s and on).
On the other hand, if I am a female and my telomere length is 2.5 kbp, am I biologically 60 years or am I biologically 87 years old? There is no straightforward answer, as what is most important is not static telomere length, but the dynamics of telomere length.
That is why Titanovo focuses on tracking telomere length over time. We consider telomeres rate of shortening to be a much more important marker of cellular health than a “biological age.” We also will soon offer (anonymous, of course) comparative demographic and lifestyle data on telomere length to our users, so they can see how they compare with cohorts who have similar and different lifestyles; this will allow users to make personalized decisions on lifestyle changes that should be made to improve their health.
Further, some people are just outliers. Their average telomere length may be extraordinarily long, but it does not necessarily mean that they are healthy and “biologically young.” While large pools of data support a certain level of truth to this claim, on an individual level an outlier may have been eating poorly for years and is obese, thus is at risk for a heart attack at an early age.
Similarly, an individual born with a naturally short telomere length may be living healthy their entire life and have no serious or imminent age-related health issues on the horizon; however, their mean telomere length is still below average. This alone does not mean that they are biologically elderly. Rather, they should look at rate of decrease in telomere length to be sure their lifestyle is working for them.
Tracking telomere length over time, as well its relationship with lifestyle data, is the best way to make health and lifestyle decisions based on telomere length.