Have you ever wondered whether your body feels as young as it should? Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi tested her ‘biological age’ to find out what lifestyle tweaks work.
A few months ago, I turned 33. Having essentially lost two years over the pandemic, I still can’t get my head around the fact that I’m in my 30s and heading towards quite a significant period of my life. Over the next half-decade, I’ll need to think about fertility and hormonal health if I want to have a baby and start preparing for perimenopause – something you can’t really start to plan for too early.
But in order to look ahead, I need to know what I’m working with now. So, I’ve been looking into finding out my ‘biological age’. Here’s what I found out from having my age tested, and the tweaks I’m going to implement to improve it.
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What is biological age (and how is it different from chronological age)?
Your chronological age is a measure of how long you’ve been alive. However much you might want to change that number, you can’t.
Occasionally, you meet those people who seem decades older or younger than they really are, and that’s a sign that their biological age is significantly different from their chronological one. Your biological age refers to how well your body functions: how much chronic inflammation it has, how well it repairs itself, etc. It’s this age we’re trying to improve or maintain through lifestyle habits including regular exercise, a balanced diet, decent sleep and stress reduction.
It’s also worth noting that our genetics and DNA can play a massive role in how fast we age. My grandma died at 95, having given up smoking at 90; clearly, her DNA was more robust against that particular bad habit. A family friend dropped dead of lung cancer, as did his brother, in his 50s having smoked a handful of cigarettes a day. Smoking must have been particularly potent for them. Our genes really can determine a lot – but so can our lifestyles.
How do you calculate biological age?
Researchers typically look at the health of your telomeres (part of the chromosomes) and DNA methylation (how your DNA is ageing) to determine biological age.
I took a GlycanAge test, which claims to be the “most accurate test of biological age available”. And it works by testing the age of your immune system, based on the health of four different glycans. A glycan is sugar-based polymer that coats cells, forming glycoproteins. And they’re integral to immune regulation and health.
My test looked at:
- Glycan youth (the more of these, the younger your immune system is)
- Glycan median (linked to cardiovascular inflammation)
- Glycan shield (more = better resilience against chronic inflammation)
- Glycan mature (the fewer, the better)
- Glycan lifestyle (how pro-inflammatory your diet, exercise regime and genes might be)
All I had to do was fill a small vile with blood from a finger-prick test, fill in the enclosed form and send off. Online, I filled in a health profile, which asked for my age, race, weight, previous smoking habits, sleep, exercise regimes, diet and any symptoms (like migraines or constipation).
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My biological age: the results
First, the good news: my biological age is apparently 21 – a full 12 years younger than my chronological age. That’s incredibly reassuring, especially as GlycanAge only test between the ages of 20 and 80, so it’s very nearly the youngest that I could have tested.
But while my anti-inflammatory shield markers are high, meaning that I’ve got good defences against chronic inflammation, my median index is lower than might have been expected – as is my lifestyle reading.
I’m a long-time vegan about to start training for my fifth marathon. I eat over 30 plants a week, exercise six or seven days a week (I cycle everywhere) and tend to sleep quite well. So, why weren’t the two readings most attributed to lifestyle as good as expected?
I spoke with Lucija Sironic, a glycobiology researcher at GlycanAge, who explained these factors in more detail.
She begins by clarifying that these tests are measuring what she calls “chronic, sterile inflammation”. “We’re not talking about inflammation that occurs like when you have a cold or the flu. This is inflammation that’s kind of always lingering around in the background.”
A ‘good’ GlycanAge is one that either matches your chronological age or falls within a three-to-five-year difference. So if you’re 33, a decent result would be having a biological age of 28-36.
What do glycans tell us about our health?
Sironic explains that when we’re born, we start off with loads of youth glycans. As we go through life, being exposed to different environmental toxins, choosing various lifestyle routines etc, we lose those and develop more mature glycans. The aim is to have as few inflammatory and as many anti-inflammatory glycans as possible.
Now, while genetics plays a massive role in how many youth/mature glycans we have, lifestyle choices can also be really influential. For example, if you’re medically obese or chronically inactive, you might find that simply tweaking what you eat or how regularly you go for a walk can dramatically improve your youth/mature glycans.
It’s the glycan medium that’s more tricky. “That one doesn’t really change with an advanced age,” Sironic says. “It more or less stays the same, even if you implement a lifestyle intervention”. If your reading isn’t great, she suggests getting your thyroid checked or looking at a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.
A few people in my family have died from hypertension; my dad, grandma and various uncles and aunts all have high blood pressure. So that’s likely to play a role – although some people do manage their hypertension to a point where they no longer need medication.
She flags that even a little social smoking over a decade ago would still have an impact on your median age.
The impact of fasting on biological age
Most interestingly of all, however, is the impact that intermittent fasting (IF) and biohacking can have on our biological health. There’s so much information out there on the benefits of IF (I’ve written about it myself), but very few studies have looked into its impact on women’s health. When Sironic asks if I do much fasting, I tell her that I used to do it religiously (sometimes fasting for up to 36 hours), but these days I try not to eat before 11am. This, she suggests, might not be doing my biological age many favours.
“Fasting has been really hyped up lately. We get loads of clients who are biohackers, and they come to us saying that fasting must be the one thing that they do right, but actually that’s not necessarily the case.
“There are people who seem to be happy fasting, but others can’t stand it. And that’s what we see with [the lifestyle glycan test].” Because more research is needed, GlycanAge is actually in the middle of conducting a study exploring the impact of time-constrained eating on biological age. In the meantime, Sironic says fasting works amazingly for some but ages others.
In fact, she cites one client, a young guy, who was a regular faster. He stopped fasting (the only intervention he tried) and his age decreased.
Sleep, thyroid health and over-exercising
Other factors she suggests for improving my median and lifestyle glycans include focusing on sleep, having a thyroid check-up (my mum had hers removed when she was my age) and, perhaps crucially, knowing what the right amount of exercise is for me.
I’ve gone through periods of chronically over-exercising and lost my periods for nearly three years. These days, I’m still very active but do far more cardio (thanks to cycling) than strength. Sironic suggests rebalancing that mix to include more strength than cardio, and thinking about the impact that doing a lot of exercise can have on sex hormone levels.
“Looking at, like, 20 or 30 years from now, we know that muscle mass is one of the foundations of youth. Muscle mass is a predictor of longevity and not just lifespan but health span. Having some kind of regular strength routine would be really good.” To see whether focusing more on strength and rest has any effect, she says you’d have to make those tweaks for at least six months before testing again.
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It doesn’t help that I have a marathon coming up in May, but as of this week, I’m planning on starting a new, more structured strength training programme to help with running. It’ll be interesting to see what impact doing more weights and really thinking about rest days and not overtraining might have – as well as having breakfast at an earlier time and not thinking about huge eating gaps.
Watch this space.
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