These DNA Tests Promised To Tell Me How Well I’m Aging — My Results Didn’t Add Up
Friday, May 19, 2017
Photo by Katie Schoolov
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With the rise of companies like 23andMe, you can now buy all kinds of genetic tests online. One type of test promises to reveal your true biological age by measuring your telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of your chromosomes that wear down over time.
But some scientists are skeptical about the usefulness of direct-to-consumer telomere tests. And by getting tested myself, I discovered these tests can sometimes lead to more questions than answers.
Maybe you have seen a commercial for one of these tests during an NFL game or at the start of a Youtube video. In the ad, a woman described as 42 years old is getting ready to go surfing when she turns to the camera and says, "How old I am means less to me than how well I'm aging. My age is just 29 in TeloYears."
The TeloYears testing kit comes in the mail and costs less than $100. TeloYears and other similar tests provide consumers with a measurement of their telomeres, along with information about how to improve their telomere health through things like diet and exercise.
They also encourage consumers to buy additional tests in the future to find out if healthy lifestyle changes have improved their aging on a cellular level.
But can these tests really tell you how well you are aging? To find out, I did a little experiment. I ordered the TeloYears test and a competing test from a company called Titanovo.
TeloYears had me prick my finger to extract a few drops of blood. Titanovo had me swab my cheek with a Q-tip. Within a few minutes, I was ready to mail off my samples.
A few weeks later, I got my results. At first, I was pleasantly surprised. TeloYears said my telomeres were longer than 98 percent of men my age, making me 20 in TeloYears. I'm actually 27. So for a moment, I felt like I had won the telomere lottery.
Then I opened my Titanovo results.
Titanovo said my telomeres were shorter than 80 percent of men my age, making me biologically closer to 37.
These two tests — both claiming to provide insights about my aging based on an objective biomarker — completely disagreed.
I wondered what I should make of this. Should I be worried about the length of my telomeres, based on my Titanovo results? Or should I keep doing whatever it is I am doing to keep my telomeres nice and long, according to TeloYears? I called both companies to follow up on these conflicting results.
Dr. Douglas Harrington, medical director for the TeloYears test, said, "Our data is published. Our validation is open. We've got an extensive database. And I'm confident of our results. I can't speak to other laboratories."
"We can't comment too much on how another company would have come to their results," said Corey McCarrren, co-founder of Titanovo. "I would send them information on our specific methodology, what the lab variability is, and all of that, to show that we are using a repeatable, reliable method."
TeloYears emailed me a peer-reviewed study to back up their testing methodology. Titanovo did not provide a similar publication, but McCarren said his company's methods "match up with what's been published and repeated in academic literature."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved either the TeloYears or Titanovo test. But both companies are certified under CLIA, a set of federal regulatory standards for lab tests.
Even after my interviews with both companies, I was still pretty confused. So I reached out to a local telomere scientist to find out what might be going on.
"One potential explanation is the two sources," said Eros Lazzerini Denchi, who studies telomeres in his lab at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.
"You have saliva and blood as sources. So it might be that you have very different telomere length in these two populations. It's a possibility. It would be unlikely, in my opinion, but it's a possibility."
Lazzerini Denchi said he would need a closer look at the methods behind each test to understand why they disagree so much. But he wanted to make a bigger point about these tests: average telomere length, he said, is just not a great metric for how well you're aging.
He said the length of telomeres in cells throughout our bodies can vary a lot, and we should only worry about extremely short ones — which may not even show up in tests that only account for average length in one cell type.
Lazzerini Denchi said the science on telomeres and aging is still pretty complicated, and some of the claims made by these tests seem very bold.
"So the bottom line for me is, even if you could get a precise measurement of your average telomere length, I would not — based on that information — make very important decisions about my life," he said.
Both Titanovo and TeloYears warned me not to make any serious medical decisions based on my results. They said I should only consider lifestyle changes to things like my diet and exercise habits.
Laura Rivard teaches biology at the University of San Diego. She has an interest in direct-to-consumer tests, and she said I am not the only person to get conflicting results. I asked her how these companies could better communicate the limitations of their tests.
"They wouldn't like my advice," she said. "Because if they were communicating the real limitations of how actionable their information is, nobody would buy the test."
In its commercials, TeloYears notes that their company was founded by a Nobel Prize winner. Elizabeth Blackburn, who won a Nobel in 2009, did co-found the company behind TeloYears.
Blackburn is now president of the Salk Institute in La Jolla. She recently sat down with me to discuss her book The Telomere Effect, which discusses telomeres and personal health.
I asked Blackburn, "Should people get their telomeres tested through these kinds of kits?"
"I don't think they do any harm, but I don't think they're actually particularly informative," she said. "I'd say it's not going to hurt, but it's not necessary."
So, take it from a Nobel-winning telomere scientist: If you want to keep your telomeres healthy, you can eat better. You can cut down on stress in your daily life.
As for spending 100 bucks on a telomere test? Maybe put that money toward a gym membership instead.
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