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These DNA Tests Promised To Tell Me How Well I'm Aging — My Results Didn't Add Up

KPBS reporter David Wagner squeezes a few drops of blood from his finger for a telomere test purchased online, Feb. 24, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
KPBS reporter David Wagner squeezes a few drops of blood from his finger for a telomere test purchased online, Feb. 24, 2017.
These DNA Tests Promised To Tell Me How Well I'm Aging — My Results Didn't Add Up
These DNA Tests Promised To Tell Me How Well I'm Aging — My Results Didn't Add Up GUEST: David Wagner, science reporter, KPBS

With the rise of companies like 23 and me cannot buy genetic tests online. Some of them promised to reveal your true biological age by measuring the tips of your chromosomes. Some scientists are skeptical. David Wagner found out that these tests can lead to more questions than answers. Maybe you've seen this commercial during the NFL game or at the start of a YouTube video. The woman described as 42 years old is getting ready to go surfing and then she says my age is 29. That great news came from a simple mail order test that cost less than $100. TeloYears another similar test give you your TeloYears. They wear off over time. What can you learn about yourself from these? I did an experiment in ordered the millennials test -- TeloYears test. They had me my's finger -- my finger. Within a few minutes I was able to mail off my samples. A few weeks later I got my results. I opened up the TeloYears package first. They said my TeloYears are longer than 90% of men my age making me 2020 low years -- 20 in TeloYears. They said my TeloYears are shorter than 80% making me 37. Be completely disagreed. So what do I make of all of this? Should I be worried about my TeloYears ? Or keep doing what I'm doing? I called both Josh companies the follow-up on these results. Our validation is open. We have a extensive database. I'm confident that our results can speak to other companies. I would send them information on our specific methodology with ideas and all that to show that we are using reliable methods. That was a doctor. Even after the interviews I was still pretty confused so I reached out to local TeloYears scientists. Is simple explanation is a resources. It might be that he had very different activities in the completion. He says that he would need a closer look at the methods behind each test to understand why they disagree so much. He says the bigger point is that average TeloYears is not a great method to how your aging. They can vary a lot we should only worry about extremely short ones which may not show up. Plessy says the signs on TeloYears and aging is still pretty complicated. The bottom line for me even if you could get precise measurement it would not make a decision on my life. They have not approved the test in both companies warn against making serious medical decisions based on the results. TeloYears commercials note that it was funded by a noble prize winner who won the Nobel in 2009 did cofound the company be just behind TeloYears. She sat down with kpbs to discuss TeloYears. Should people get their TeloYears tested? I don't think they are informative. So take it from a scientist. If you want to keep them healthy, eat better, cut down on stress and spending $100 on a test maybe put that money toward a gym membership instead. David Wagner spent weeks researching those test. He recently spoke with Michael Lipkin about his reporting. So TeloYears tests are just one my type of these direct tests that are available? What else is out there? The one people are the most familiar with is 23andMe. Use an offer saliva sample and they give you information about your health and trades. It was prevented from disclosing certain health related information. The FDA had question the accuracy of the results but lately they've been allowed to start giving some of the information. Now they will tell you something about your risk for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and other diseases. These come in all flavors. They can get pretty serious like results that tell you whether or not you are closest to getting all hammers or what sort of workout you should be doing based on your DNA and food you should be eating and skin care regimens you should be following The FDA approval came last month for these tests. Are some consider more reliable? I would say that 23andMe did have to do something to let the FDA start providing them information. I think anything you are buying online and getting in the mail is super easy. It is important to look at the fine print. I think you'll find the vast majority just are not approved by the FDA. There is some real questions about how they are vetted and how desk if you're interested in getting a test as a fun experiment and you are not going to take the results to seriously you don't mind parting with $100 or whatever the insurer. If you're looking to make any real medical decisions, I think it is better to stick with tests recommended by your doctor. So we just heard a commercial for the TeloYears company at the bottom of the screen there is fine print as a doctor will review and approve your order before it is processed. Did you have interaction with the doctor from the company? No, I did not have any meaningful interaction with the doctor when I was ordering the test. I do remember seeing a doctor's name and paperwork but it's not like anybody called me up to ask why I really wanted to take this test. There was no discussion on that level. The whole process was not much harder than ordering something on Amazon. What does it matter in and that the tests have questionable results? We do not get harmed by taking this test, right? That is right. I'm not in any physical or psychological distress about this. The test did not help me or motivate me to adopt healthy habits. Did not make me so anxious about my TeloYears. Nothing bad happened as a result of me taking the test. However, some say they can do other kinds of damage so they can maybe damage the public perception of science or the public understanding of science. They often sell themselves as a fun way to learn something about yourself, but also the science behind TeloYears and aging . I spoke with some of that teaches biology in San Diego and she says it is a concern with all kinds of genetic tests that pitch themselves to customers as a fun, educational way to learn something about themselves. I think it is in their interest to oversimplify what is going on and then stayed it's just for fun. So we are not on the hook if you go to your doctor and your doctor says the opposite of what our test has. We told you it was just for fun anyway. Change her diet and exercise more. You do not need to spend $100 to find out that you need to be eating well and exercising to stay healthy. The two test you took was pretty good but the others said that your TeloYears was short compared to people your age. To that result that negative result to be used against you in some way by employers, doctors, insurance companies Schmack No, right now. Health insurance companies cannot deny people coverage and there is protections about whether employers can see these results or not. I think that as we are all aware there's a debate happening in Congress right now about existing conditions. Should they be protected if they were stripped away what a bad TeloYears result qualify as a pre-existing condition? I would say no. There's questions about what employees would do with that information. The bottom line is I'm not worried about this. This is not a result a series of something that would be like you're at a much higher risk of developing Alzheimer's. I think it's important to keep in mind that there is political disagreement about whether health insurance companies, employees should be able to see the result in do about it. That was David Wagner speaking with the producer Michael Lipkin.

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.

These DNA Tests Promised To Tell Me How Well I'm Aging — My Results Were Conflicting

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.