Your age influences many things about your life: your wage packet, insurance premiums, dating habits, even your TV tastes and holiday preferences. But it reveals surprisingly little about your personal health, fitness, vulnerability to injury and illness, or cognitive function. What really matters, according to a growing number of health experts, is your “biological age” – how your body is functioning relative to your calendar age.
Also known as “health age”, or sometimes more specifically as “heart age” or “fitness age”, this vital statistic can reveal if you have the health of a marathon-running, blueberry-eating teenager or a bed-bound 65-year-old pensioner.
“You only have to look at school reunion photos to see that we don’t all age at the same rate,” says Sean Lerwill, a personal trainer with a degree in molecular genetics. “You can see who is keeping healthy and who is ageing early.”
Obvious signs of a higher health age are excess body fat or muscle wastage, which trigger a premature risk of age-related problems like heart disease and impaired physical function. But other markers of age-associated decline, from reduced lung capacity and heart health to low bone density and cognitive decline, are less visible – and if you have them, even if you have a relatively young calendar age, you’re more vulnerable to everything from diabetes and Alzheimer’s to osteoporosis.
Research published in the US Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences journal showed that young people of the same chronological age vary in their biological age long before midlife, with those with an “older” health age already suffering a decline in physical and cognitive performance. Knowing your biological age can help slash this risk, by verifying if you are ageing well or inspiring you to rewind the clock.
The exact mechanisms of ageing, known as senescence, remain unclear. Academics are divided between “programmed” theories, in which humans follow a biological timetable of genetic, hormonal and immunological decline, and “damage-related” theories, whereby environmental and lifestyle factors cause DNA damage, inflammation or oxidative stress which impairs cells. Without consensus, it is impossible to have one definitive biological age test. But through health assessments and physiological analysis it is possible to examine scientifically-proven, age-related markers which provide authentic insights into your body’s health age.
“What people mean by biological age is comparing data about yourself with age-matched predictive values that reveal the state of your body relative to your peers and other age groups,” explains Jim Pate, a physiologist and lab manager at the Centre for Health and Human Performance, a company that focuses on preventing health issues and improving sports performance.
The most accessible tests are basic questionnaires which compare your exercise routine, health and diet with age-related norms drawn from large population studies – and what those studies have revealed about general health and disease risk. The “What’s my real age?” test on the BBC website – a spin-off from the How To Stay Young show - asks simple questions about your vegetable intake and exercise routine, while the Vitality Age test adds more detailed questions about your cholesterol and fasting glucose. The NHS also runs its own “What’s your heart age?” test online.
“Quality of life screenings are based on analysis of large population studies using results of high statistical significance,” says Pate. For example, if you exercise regularly, science suggests you’re more likely to have the bone density of a younger person; but if you suffer from stress, research proves your risk of heart disease will be closer to that of an older person. The tests are not diagnostic but serve as helpful tools to assess your health age.
For a more accurate fitness age assessment, physiological testing is required. “We know fitness changes as we get older so testing helps us to examine markers to assess your fitness age,” says Pate, who suggests cardiopulmonary exercise testing (CPEX) to check heart and lung health. “We have data sets to tell if you have a VO2 max 25% better than the average guy your age, or if you have the fitness of someone X years older than you. This test will tell you if you are 35 but have the beginnings of cardiovascular problems.”
More sophisticated biological age tests are on the horizon. A Chinese study published in the journal Frontiers In Aging Neuroscience suggested a urine test based on ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography could analyse key biomarkers such as 8-oxoGsn, a substance which correlates with age-related oxidative damage in the body. Meanwhile, scientists at Yale University have created a blood test which analyses nine age-related biomarkers linked to ageing. “Blood markers are indicators of something deeper within you so they could be used to look for age-related markers,” says Pate.
Genetic tests could also help. Experts at King’s College London have discovered a genetic signature of around 150 genes which can assess the human ageing process. Other researchers are measuring telomeres – the protective sleeves which sit on the end of your chromosomes, like the plastic tips of shoelaces, to protect your DNA. “These telomeres shorten as we get older so they could be used as age markers,although we don’t yet understand the mechanism entirely,” says Pate.
For now, a combination of health assessments and fitness tests are the best way to get insights into your biological age – and inspire you to build a younger body. After all, your biological age is reversible.
“If your heart age is higher than your actual age, you may be at increased risk of heart attack and stroke, but crucially you can lower this risk and improve your general health by making important lifestyle changes such as taking regular exercise, eating well, cutting back on alcohol and not smoking,” says Professor Jamie Waterall, national lead for cardiovascular disease prevention at Public Health England.
Lerwill insists that, just like monitoring your weight or body mass index, the accuracy of the tests is less important than your general direction of travel. “Knowing your biological age just gives you the tools to make changes,” he says. Keep scrolling to find the best ways to start rewinding the clock.
“I recommend doing two or three weights sessions for every cardio session,” says Lerwill. “Resistance training prevents muscle wastage, triggers biological reactions that help to remove free radicals and oxidative stress, and increases blood flow.” It also boosts growth hormone, which helps you retain bone-building calcium and fat-burning muscle as you age. A study in the journal Obesity confirmed that people who lift weights have less visceral fat – which is linked to age-related problems like heart disease and diabetes - than those who just do cardio.
“You don’t lose muscle because you get older; you lose it because you stop using it,” says Lerwill. “Compound moves like squats, deadlifts, bench presses and pull-ups are best for reversing the clock.” After the age of 40, you can lose 8% of muscle mass every decade, slowing your metabolism and weakening your body, so cement good habits early. Compound lifts also increase your production of testosterone, and research in the Journal Of Clinical Endocrinology And Metabolism has linked reduced testosterone to an elevated risk of heart disease.
Research by the Mayo Clinic has shown that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) slows cellular ageing by boosting the regeneration of mitochondria (your body’s energy-producing powerhouses) by up to 69%. It also enhances lung, heart and circulation health to keep your body young. “Cardio sessions like spin classes, sprints or CrossFit classes will keep your weight down and strengthen your heart and lungs,” adds Lerwill.
Cycling, running or other endurance training will keep you feeling young. A study in the journal Aging Cell showed that long-distance cyclists enjoyed better cholesterol levels and retained more T-cells (the immune system’s disease-fighting soldiers) into old age. Weight-bearing exercise also boosts bone health to fight off osteoporosis.
“To lower your body’s age you need to stay supple,” says Lerwill. “Dynamic flexibility training in your warm-up or before breakfast is great; use yoga, dynamic flow or animal flow exercises to keep your hips and joints open. Sitting at a desk is terrible for our posture but these exercises fight the bad habits which age you.” Try doing stretches throughout your working day: University of California research found that routinely sitting for ten hours a day increases your biological age by eight years.
A heavy one-rep max day or brutal CrossFit class is fine but not every session should be a pain-fest. “Hammering yourself every day creates cortisol and stress responses so your central nervous system takes a beating,” says Lerwill. Your exercise should be regular – 40 minutes, five days a week will cut your biological age by nine years, according to Brigham Young University – but moderate exercise is fine: a study by Appalachian State University showed that moderate-intensity resistance training is as good as hypertensive medication at lowering blood pressure.
“Aim to eat foods that have a natural anti-inflammatory action,” says nutritionist Angelique Panagos. “Good fats like omega 3 fatty acids get broken down into anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body, which help keep your cells at a good age. You get them from oily fish, olive oil, raw nuts, seeds and avocado.” Research by Japan’s National Centre for Global Health and Medicine suggested that a traditional Japanese diet high in omega 3-rich fish delivers a 15% lower mortality rate.
A study in the British Journal Of Nutrition suggested that changing to a Mediterranean-style diet of fish, vegetables, wholegrain and unrefined carbohydrates – even later in life – brings a 25% reduction in all-cause mortality. Research in the journal Neurology has also shown that following this diet helps you retain brain volume to ward off dementia and memory loss.
“Ginger and turmeric help with reducing inflammation in the body,” says Panagos. Research by the University of Miami shows that ginger has an anti-inflammatory effect on cells, while a study in the Saudi Medical Journal suggests a daily dose can improve cholesterol levels. Curcumin, found in turmeric, also has anti-inflammatory properties, according to a report in Advances In Experimental Medicine And Biology.
Your gut is a key part of your body’s immune system so arm yourself against disease and infection with immunity-boosting foods. “Your gut flora is the basis of good health, so aim for things that maintain it like garlic, onion, artichokes, oats and fermented foods like sauerkraut,” suggests Panagos.
They’ll inhibit the damaging effects of oxidation. “Foods high in antioxidants include dark green leafy veg and colourful fruit – berries, in particular, promote longevity,” says Panagos. “At meal times always aim for half a plate of non-starchy vegetables.” For an antioxidant hit, try her body-boosting green smoothie, made from three handfuls of kale, two sticks of celery, two apples, ¼ avocado, 1tsp ground flaxseeds and water.
Get your eight hours. A study in Biological Psychiatry found that sleep deprivation heightened inflammatory markers linked to cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes, while an American study suggested people who sleep less than five hours a night had an “excess heart age” 5.1 years beyond their real age.
“Research suggests the best way to keep the brain healthy is by learning new things because it makes new connections in the brain,” says psychologist Bradley Busch (innerdrive.co.uk). “Hobbies like languages and music are great.” A Harvard study showed that musicians’ brains contained a larger volume of grey matter than those of non-musicians.
A University of California study revealed that stress is linked to shortened telomeres and higher oxidative stress – both markers that correlate to reduced longevity. “A good test is noticing if you often use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’,” says Busch. “Thinking in extremes and absolutes is a sign of stress. Keeping a daily journal can help you achieve clarity thoughts and a sense of closure – writing always involves a beginning and an end. The process itself encourages you to find solutions.”
Written by Mark Bailey for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.