Biology or chronology? What’s age all about?

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Dubai: How old are you? If this question raises your hackles, turn to science that offers you a new way of counting your age that has nothing to do with the passage of years.

For many people, the number of candles on their birthday cake can be a matter of consternation. They would rather invoke the importance of symbolism and blow a single candle than reveal the number of the summers lived through. However, as health experts and your robust octogenarian neighbour will tell you, a number-progression of the years is no evidence of true aging. True aging, they will tell you, is internal. It is a count of how young the state of your heart, lungs, muscles and bones are, of how slow your cellular ageing is. It is a count of how quickly you can cover three flights of stairs without collapsing into a heap mid-way, or how efficiently you can burn off a 1,000 calories. Such virtues are what constitute your biological age, which can be years below your chronological age. In people who live healthy lifestyles and have a optimistic outlook, lagging behind in such a manner is a matter of accomplishment. A healthy 50-year-old can enjoy a biological age that’s a decade younger. On the other hand, an indulgent 40-year-old can end up with the biological age that’s at least five years more than their calender age.

So, how can you find out your biological age? There are tests that will spell it out for you.

Dr Hoda Makkawi
Image Credit: Supplied

Dr Hoda Makkawi, Head of Euromed Wellness., Dubai, a consultant in integrative holistic medicine and an anti-ageing medicine specialist, says “There are tremendous leaps in the research into biological aging and recently, new tests called telomere tests, were unveiled, which allow you to detect the biological age.”

What are telomeres?

Telomeres are the end caps of our chromosomes – the parts of our cells that carry genetic information and are responsible for cell division. Every time a cell divides, the caps shorten, until they are too short for the cell to replicate and it dies – otherwise known as ageing.

“Basically, the longer the telomere length, the younger you are biologically, irrespective of your chronological age,” says Dr Makkawi. ”Each time the cell copies itself, the telomere get shorter. Eventually, the telomere gets too short to carry out their primary functions. This causes our cells to age and stop functioning.”

Telomeres, and the way they shorten, are relatively new to science. British scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, author of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering exactly how telomeres protect chromosomes and the importance of the enzyme telomerase in building telomeres.

It’s a potential new biomarker in our quest not just to live longer, but extend our “healthspan”, the years we live actively and disease-free. A 2017 study published in the journal Prevention showed that people who exercised five times a week (jogging for 30 to 40 minutes) had longer telomeres than sedentary people, a difference of nine years of biological ageing.

‘Outwardly youthful, inwardly old’

Dr Tim Evans, of Grace Medical Clinic London, says, “Thirty per cent of how we age is related to our genes, which we can do nothing about, but 70 per cent is related to lifestyle. Research suggests that premature telomere shortening is associated with smoking, being overweight, inactivity, stress, poor sleep, presence of cancer and even trauma.”

Shorter telomeres put you at greater risk of age-related diseases than someone with a lower biological age.

“The ‘outwardly youthful, inwardly old’ profile is not uncommon among stressed-out high-achieving midlifers and this applies to both men and women,” says Dr Evans.

“I see people who are super-lean and super-fit, everything seems perfect. It is often the younger ones that expect to have the superhuman result. Yet they can come back with a result that’s significantly older than their chronological age.”

It’s all about adaptability and smart choices

On the other hand, many elderly individuals, whose chronological age may be 65 or even 75, display a much younger biological age. These people have a commonality, says Dr Hoda. “That is resilience and easy adaptation to different life stressors, plus from what I have learned, most of these long-living people follow a very healthy lifestyle.”When it comes to understand the true meaning of ageing, it all comes to the cellular level. If we take care of our health early on in life, before the aging starts, we will be able to reverse aging and aging signs not only from outside but at the cellular and gene level to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s and chronic malfunction in different organs. So, it is vital to live an active and productive life. It’s about a positive outlook on life and living,” she says.

Internalised ageism and how to avoid it

Do you feel anxious about the advancing years? Does the thought of getting older weight on your mind? A constant worry on this count can lead to what experts call internalised ageism. “Internalised ageism can worsen not just people’s outlook but also their health,” says Dr Hoda. “Experts urge that people need to recognise the significant gains of experience that comes with the years, and not focus only on the losses.”

The power of positive thought, she says, is immense. “Quite unbelievably, positive thoughts can alter gene expression, modifying our aging and the propagation of a disease in the body,” says Dr Hoda. “This is why some people, [though] they may carry a genetic predisposition to a disease may not, unlike other family members, develop the disease. It is like a beneficial cycle – the more you think positive and feel positive, the younger and healthier you will be as thoughts and feelings change into actions that impact our body’s health.”

— With inputs from Washington Post

How can you test for your biological age in the UAE?

“This new method of testing, Telomere testing, is a blood test which detects the length of the DNA, focussing on the ends of the DNA strands. Is essence, the shorter the end, the older the cells. This technology is incredibly recent. Most likely, it will be at clinics [in the UAE] that specialise in wellness. If your biological age is older than your chronological age, than you are aging at a faster rate than you should,” says Dr Hoda.

What is the cost of telomere testing in UAE?

“The cost starts from Dh3,000 [and upwards].”

How accurate are these tests?

“They are incredibly accurate.”

According to estimates, the global genetic testing market is estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion and set to grow 10 per cent by 2020.

It’s also big business. When commercial telomere tests first appeared nearly a decade years ago, they were very expensive. But now, they’re are coming in line with other popular anti-ageing treatments, such as a couple of rounds of Botox or a weekend detox retreat.

Want to stay healthy irrespective of your chronological age?

1) Ageing can be reversed by daily lifestyle habits such as sleep, exercise, diet, drinking in moderation and no smoking.

2) Look for food’s rich in Vitamin C such as citrus, berries, apples, plums and carrots.

3) Speak to your wellness doctor about medication that prevents the breakdown of telomerase, an enzyme involved in telomere shortening. You can also prevent telomere shortening by Intermittent Fasting (IF) as this helps clear our bodies from oxidants and stops oxidative stress that shortens telomeres.

4) Glutathione is an amino acid that is found naturally in our bodies and fights oxidative stress. Once depleted, the number of free radicals increase, and we end up in oxidative stress leading to the destruction of our DNA.

(Dr Hoda)


Keith Thompson
Image Credit: Supplied

Keith Thompson, 79, from the UK (visits Dubai frequently to be with his son and family):

“I feel a good 10 years younger, which I put down to leading a full and active lifestyle and trying to see the best in everything. I probably wouldn’t be keen to find out my biological age simply because it won’t change how I feel. As long as I’m feeling fit and healthy and continue to maintain a positive outlook on life, I just cannot see the benefit.

I keep myself busy at home maintaining the garden, the family home, our two cars and everything else that goes with that. I enjoy walking with my wife, I sing in a choir and I’m a member of four social groups which regularly meet for lunch to catch up and discuss local matters affecting our day-to-day lives. I’m conscious of my diet and try to eat healthily, with lots of fruit and vegetables and very little alcohol, but I do allow myself the occasional treat as well.

Meera Paithankar
Image Credit: Supplied

Meera Paithankar, 90, UAE resident (lives with her son, daughter in law and two granddaughters in Sharjah)

“Even today, I feel like I am 18. Recently I celebrated by 90th birthday. I decided to come and be with my son’s family when I turned 80.

“Till I turned 80, I was going for 5km walk every day and doing yoga for half an hour. I am a vegetarian and believe a lot in natural and homeopathy remedies. It is important to feel happy and interested in life. I am an extrovert and love connecting with people, read a lot and love to travel and am always happy and contented. My advice to the younger generation that want to look and feel younger is eat less and avoid oily and spicy food, go on a regular fast, and exercise regularly. Listen to your body as it can heal naturally, avoid medication.”

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