A DNA Test That Can Determine Your Rate of Aging
Jennifer Kovacs-Nolan, PhD, is goop’s director of science and research. She’s got a keen bullshit detector, always knows the right thing to say, and has a vast and useful knowledge of wellness products that work.
For the most part, I keep things pretty healthy. I eat well, and I love a good walk around the neighborhood to get my heart rate up. I manage my stress and, in non-COVID times, see friends. (COVID, of course, has changed things, but I’m maintaining the habits that matter most right now—like plenty of sleep—and giving myself plenty of wiggle room on the negotiables: If I don’t get loads of vegetables in every meal, that’s okay.) I also like using health trackers sometimes. When I’m working out, I track my activity on my Apple Watch—it’s cool to see a data-driven, visual representation of what’s going on with your body to help you meet your goals. The technology’s out there, so why not take advantage of it?
Which brings me to Elysium Health, a health sciences company that’s making some of the most innovative biological data technology I’ve seen out there. Elysium’s overall mission is to take critical scientific advancements and turn them into something you don’t have to be a scientist—or see a doctor—to use. The company’s scientific advisory board includes twenty-five world-renowned researchers and clinicians, including eight Nobel Prize–winning scientists. (Casual.) One of its most popular and compelling offerings is a test called Index, developed by aging and pathology expert Morgan Levine, PhD. Index looks at specific epigenetic markers on your DNA—how many there are, where they’re located—in order to determine whether you’re aging at a faster or slower rate than expected.
I’m goop’s director of science and research, so when Index landed on my desk, I was able to conduct an in-depth review of the science behind it. And while I won’t go in-depth here—the algorithm it uses is beyond the scope of this article—I will say I was impressed by the test itself. The research behind it is complex and well researched, and the results it delivers are simple, straightforward, and easy for just about anyone to understand.
Part of my evaluation was getting to try Index myself. After the order was placed, I got a box in the mail with everything I needed to conduct the test. It was surprisingly simple. (The complicated stuff comes later, in Elysium’s labs.) The Index test comes with a set of fairly detailed instructions, a small collection vial, a little funnel, a tray, and everything you need to package it up when you’re done. I was careful to follow the directions exactly as they were laid out, which ended up being easy. The gist of it: Spit in a tube, seal it, and mail it back to the lab.
After I dropped my sample in the mail, Elysium kept me updated by email and through my online portal, confirming they’d received my sample, that it had passed quality control, that they had extracted my DNA and read my methylation patterns and analyzed my data. (None of this required any action on my part, but I liked knowing what was happening when.)
When the results email came, I have to admit I was nervous. I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t show I was aging dramatically faster than I should be. Turns out I wasn’t, which I’m pretty pleased with: My estimated biological age—the number they use to represent the approximate age at which your body appears to be functioning, rather than how many years it’s been on this planet—came out four years younger than my chronological age. (“Chronological age” is what Elysium calls the number of years since you were born, which doesn’t always match how your body has aged since then.) That biological age divided by my chronological age made my cumulative rate of aging come out to 0.93. That is, my body has aged 7 percent slower than expected. That’s a good thing. While Index can make no promises about my longevity, this test was confirmation that the mostly healthy lifestyle I love to live is doing right by me.
I liked my Index results. And since I received them, I’ve thought about what it would have been like had my results stated the opposite—that my body was biologically past my actual age. Even though it’s not the result I would have wanted, I would have reminded myself that the biological age determined by this test is not fixed. It says so in the kit: You can change your habits and potentially change your score over time. I’m not saying a total habit overhaul would drop your numbers in a couple of months. But in the long term, whatever healthy habits you’re able to maintain do add up.
That’s why your results come with a digital lifestyle guide that goes over healthy habits that can improve your rate of aging, whether your biological age comes in lower or higher than your chronological one. It covers the usual stuff—a balanced diet, regular movement, good-quality sleep, an active social life, and a mindful outlook. While those tips are general, they’re not unimportant. The idea is that these are ways to manage stressors on your body that may contribute to your rate of aging. And if you would like to take the test again sometime down the line, maybe improve your scores.
At the end of the day, the biological age you get from Index is a data point. Like other everyday health data you might be collecting (your steps per day, your resting heart rate, your sleep scores), it is what you make of it. Since I got my results, I’ve been living the same way I normally do. No sweeping health resolutions here. I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of regular life, where I move a little more and snack a little less, whenever that happens. But in the meantime, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ve built a foundation of healthy habits, and I’m excited to continue to build on them. And in a couple of years, maybe I’ll do Index again—even if only to keep my data up to date.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.