Curiosity about how well our bodies are ageing has fuelled an industry around telomere length tests, but the much touted “biological clock” in our DNA isn’t what we thought

Life



17 February 2021

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Martin Leon Barreto

 

WHEN David Nurse turned 30, he wanted to find out how his biological age compared with his chronological one. A life coach with the US National Baseball Association, he hoped that the ultra-healthy lifestyle he advocates to players had kept his own body young and healthy, too. So he took a test to assess the length of his telomeres. It revealed his biological age to be 28 years. That was in 2017. Two years later, he took another test. “I was down to 25, so that was great,” he says.

If you google “telomeres”, you are likely to find them described as an ageing clock. They are segments of DNA at the ends of each chromosome that become shorter every time a cell divides. If this shortening happens slowly, it suggests that your body is wearing well. Say you are a 60-year-old with telomeres as long as those of an average 50-year-old, your mortality risk is equivalent to that of someone 10 years younger – or so the story goes. Increasing numbers of people want this information, and many companies offer tests like the one Nurse took, together with various pills claimed to lengthen your telomeres and, in turn, your lifespan.

If only it were that simple. We are now discovering that telomeres are an unreliable ageing clock, which raises questions about the validity of ageing tests based on them. The links between telomere length and lifestyle choices also aren’t as straightforward as we once thought. In fact, long telomeres can even be bad news. Nevertheless, there are some surprising ways we can look after our …