Your cells might be aging faster than you are, and new tests purport to help you find out. A few companies are offering mail-order testing to measure the length of people’s telomeres.
Telomere Diagnostics, of Menlo Park, Calif., recently launched an $89 test. Users mail in a drop of blood and get back a calculation of their age in “TeloYears,” adjusted up or down depending on how they compare with the general population. The service also provides advice for improving diet, fitness, sleep and stress levels, which some small studies suggest may help telomeres regain length.
“There’s a difference between knowing how old you are, and how well you are aging,” says Telomere Diagnostics chief executive Jason Shelton. “The age you are on the inside, on the cellular level, may be a better indicator.”
Still, some top telomere scientists say such information amounts to little more than high-tech palm reading, in part because telomere length varies so widely in the general population that it isn’t clear what length is problematic.
“We don’t yet know how to interpret these results. It might suggest there is something wrong when there isn’t,” says Carol Greider, director of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering how telomeres protect chromosomes.
Fellow Nobel winner Elizabeth Blackburn, now president of the Salk Institute, co-founded the predecessor company to Telomere Diagnostics, but parted ways with it in 2013 and is no longer connected to the company.
Critics say the few controlled trials that show people can lengthen their telomeres are very small and the large observational studies that make up the bulk of the scientific literature on telomeres don’t demonstrate cause and effect. And while exercise, a healthy diet and stress reduction may lower the risk of death and disease, it hasn’t been shown that telomere length has anything to do with it, some researchers say.
Much of what is known about telomeres and disease comes from studying people who have inherited extremely short telomeres and are vulnerable to several specific conditions, including pulmonary fibrosis, immune deficiency, loss of bone marrow and certain cancers. It is important for those people, who make up at most 10% of the population, to know if their telomeres are abnormally short because they should avoid certain treatments, says Mary Armanios, clinical director of the Telomere Center at Johns Hopkins.
“For everyone else, based on what we know in 2016, telomere length is not relevant to disease risk,” Dr. Armanios says. “They have to be really, really short to cause disease and most people never get to that point as they age.”
The testing companies argue that the wealth of observational studies provides ample evidence that short telomeres are a risk factor for many diseases in the general population and that making healthy lifestyle changes can help telomeres regain length. Knowing your telomere length isn’t meant to diagnose a specific disease, they say. “It’s more like a check-engine light” on a car, an early indication that something is amiss, says Calvin Harley, chief scientific officer at Telomere Diagnostics, which recommends users take the test every six months to track their progress.
Other testing companies also contend that shorter-than-average telomeres can be a warning sign of future health problems. Titanovo Inc., in Raleigh, N.C., uses cheek swabs for its $150 test. Life Length, based in Madrid, offers its test only through physicians, who it says can help patients understand what they are most at risk for. The test, which costs $395, measures all 92 telomeres in cell samples, rather than reporting averages, as Telomere Diagnostics does.
Stephen Matlin, Life Length’s chief executive, says tens of thousands of patients in the U.S., the U.K. and the Middle East have used the test. While it isn’t known if they have lengthened their telomeres, “we do see that people adopt major lifestyle changes to improve their health and fitness,” he says.