After swirling the cotton swab around my mouth and sealing it in the plastic bag, I felt confident about my DNA test results. Cocky, even. Four weeks later, Tally Health, a newly launched biotech company centered on longevity, would tell me my biological age based on more than 850,000 DNA markers in my body, which it measured via my spit. Before then, I’d have my 35th birthday (this is my chronological age, or how long I’ve been alive). I didn’t sweat it too much, though, knowing my biological age would surely reveal me to be in my 20s. I’m not a wellness guru, but I consider myself to be pretty damn healthy.
A week after my birthday, my results came in, and they weren’t what I expected: I seem to be 36 years and 8 months old. I spiraled for a few days, then decided that this called for a deeper investigation — into epigenetic tests, yes, but also aging in general.
First of all, Tally is the newest and supposedly the most advanced at-home biological age testing kit you can buy. (One kit costs $229.) There are many ways to estimate your biological age, BTW — including but not limited to testing your grip strength, seeing how many steps you can take in six minutes, and measuring how long it takes you to move from seated to standing. Or you can take more complex tests, like Tally, that look at DNA methylation.
“These tests look at your methylation markers, meaning how efficiently your genes are expressing,” says Kashif Khan, longevity coach, author, and CEO and founder of The DNA Company. And your genes are always expressing: Eating something, being scared, and smelling something strange are all forms of input your genes respond to. “Your body is constantly reacting to these things and trying to give you what you need in order to deal with them,” he says. “The efficiency at which you do that is slightly different based on how you methylate.”
Aging, then, is the degradation of cells. “Your DNA begins to get damaged and oxidize just like an apple,” says Khan. Outwardly, this wear and tear — from exposure to pollutants, smoking, drinking alcohol, and stress — shows up as sagging skin and hair turning white, for instance. So if you look young for your age, it’s because you’re doing a decent job protecting yourself from these external factors.
“We know that if you eat a healthy diet and exercise, you should be able to change your biological age in roughly six months or so.”
I’m certainly doing my due diligence: I wear (and reapply) sunscreen, don’t smoke, rarely drink, exercise to combat stress, and eat my greens. I regularly get doses of happy hormones like endorphins (from said exercise), oxytocin (thanks to my hubs and my dog), and dopamine (when I post something on social media or find an incredible meme). I’d say that I look young for my age due to all of these things, with a little help from genetics and facial injections. And yet — the Tally test clocked me at a full year and eight months past my chronological age. What the hell gives?
After receiving my test results, the brand surveyed me on my lifestyle habits — think exercise, diet, and sleep. Based on the action plan it gave me, the main thing I should do differently in order to reduce my biological age is to eat more fish and less processed food. But this advice, I’ve learned, should be taken with a rather large grain of salt, because it’s only based on how you stack up against other participants who have taken Tally’s test (and the same is true for other tests that look at DNA methylation to determine your biological age). As these products grow in popularity, the data will become more accurate.
“The action plan algorithm takes your DNA methylation information, looks at everyone around you, and asks what those who are biologically younger are doing differently,” says Adiv Johnson, director of research and innovation at Tally Health. With Tally’s, the highest lifestyle impact — based on its 8,000 participants (chronologically) aged 18 to 80 — is eating a plant-based diet, he says. “We see that people that are 75 to 100% plant-based, on average, are much younger than people that are carnivores,” he explains. “We see the same trends for vegetable intake, cardiovascular exercise, smoking, alcohol, and soda consumption.” To be fair, younger generations have grown up with more access to wellness data and are generally more health-conscious as a result of that, which might contribute to these findings.
A healthy lifestyle is really important, BTW, if longevity is your endgame. As I recently learned, how you age and how long you live is not solely genetic. “The vast majority of aging is environment and lifestyle,” says Johnson. In that case, you should have a lot of control over how long you live. So... can you lower your biological age? Thankfully, yes. “We know that if you eat a healthy diet and exercise, you should be able to change your biological age in roughly six months or so,” says Dr. Neil Paulvin, M.D., a physician and functional medicine doctor.
Really, being biologically younger — and therefore living a longer life, in theory — involves following the most basic healthy habits you’ve been hearing about for your entire life. Ironically enough, though, Khan points out that most people are biologically older than their chronological age. We all have our vices and indulge in one way or another. No one is out here actually living like Gwyneth Paltrow. “We have a $4 trillion health care budget, and 75% is spent on chronic disease management,” says Khan. “There’s never been a time in history when people have been this sick.”
You should have a lot of control over how long you live.
If everyone knows the general pillars of health, and most people don’t completely adhere to them, I started wondering: What is the point of taking a biological age test, then? Is it to scare people into being more serious about their wellness routines? All three of my experts said yes — that’s exactly it. “The hope is that tests like these will be an incentive,” says Khan.
Well, the incentive didn’t really work on me. Instead of becoming even “healthier,” I found myself filled with anger and existential dread. And that’s exactly what I don’t want if my goal is to live a longer life, since stress directly affects your physical health. So I decided to just keep on as I was before. I already know what it takes to be Peak Wellness. When I want to eat a super-processed Crunchwrap Supreme, I'm going to. If I choose a burger over the branzino, so be it — let me live. And yet I did find myself conscientiously making sure I had veggies at every meal, whether said meal was from Taco Bell or not. So maybe it did work on me. If your biological age changes, maybe don’t put much stock into it — after all, age is just a number.
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Kashif Khan, longevity coach, author, and CEO and founder of The DNA Company
Dr. Neil Paulvin, M.D., physician and functional medicine doctor
Adiv Johnson, director of research and innovation at Tally Health