They say that age is just a number. Except, of course, we all know it isn’t. It’s a source of distress, a mark of failure, a deep dark secret… The good news is that you may actually be younger than you think. Medical developments (God bless them) have found that our bodies’ ages may be better measured by something called GlycanAge.
GlycanAge isn’t a sinister sci-fi film: it is a laboratory test that measures your age according to the glycans in your blood. The process is straightforward: a medical professional takes a sample of your blood (from a quick and painless pinprick on the finger) and the sample is sent to the lab where the test measures the glycans — a group of sugars that stick to proteins.
How can this possibly tell you whether you’re closer to cradle or coffin? We produce these glycans in different ways at different ages. Glycans have therefore been found to be an accurate indicator of the body’s age.
The test, which isn’t yet available to consumers, will be conducted by healthcare professionals — that is, doctors and nutritionists — and will come with a consultation. Research started over a decade ago, and GlycanAge tests have been carried out on 40,000 samples (ie, lab monkeys such as yours truly). Following a test, the consumer, or patient, would then work with the professionals to look at lifestyle risk factors that are adding years to your age. These risk factors are all very obvious: smoking, alcohol, lack of exercise, weight and diet.
I spoke to Professor Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, who is carrying out the research. ‘Our pilot studies have found that the test, with the advice of a healthcare professional, is a wake-up call. We fool ourselves in modern life quite a lot. Everyone says “I’m full of energy, I look really healthy, therefore I am”, and then you test them and their GlycanAge is 15 years older than their chronological age.’ At what point is an older GlycanAge too old, I ask. ‘At the moment, there isn’t a clear set point. I would say that within a few years is normal, but if you’re 10 years over that’s a definite sign that you’re not as healthy as you thought you were.
‘I’m hoping this will be a widely used tool, used to help people improve their health, think about what they eat, think about their general lifestyle. This could be an annual test that people undertake to maximise that.’
So what’s the point in the test, since I already know that ceasing smoking will allow me to live longer? As a lab monkey for GlycanAge, there is a comfort in knowing how your body is ageing internally. We can slather gallons of factor 50 cream on our skin, trot down to Harley Street to freeze our faces or plump our wrinkles (I haven’t), but we — hitherto — have never really known the effect of our lifestyle on our body’s cellular ageing.
I am beyond delighted to tell you, reader, that I am three years younger than I thought I was. It seems most unlikely that I should be, given lack of sleep, severe hypochondria, Camel Blue dependency and fondness for strong alcoholic beverages. How could this be?
‘The plus points are that you’re fairly fit and healthy, you’ve got a good diet, you’re slim. The negative side is smoking and it may be that the positives balance out the negatives,’ says Professor Spector, before suggesting that I attempt another test next year.
But what of those whose results aren’t quite so cheering? ‘No test is 100 per cent accurate,’ says Professor Spector. And — because I’m greedy — can I make myself younger still? ‘GlycanAge can certainly reduce in animals, but there aren’t many long-term studies yet in humans. That’s obviously the next step.’ Then age really would be just a number.