“Happy birthday to you…” Do these words instill incapacitating fear or unbridled joy? Children welcome them with wide open arms and with great jubilation. As people age, the enthusiasm wanes to the point of dread. Why?
One possibility has to do with the aging process. Children look forward to getting older because with it come new found freedoms or rites of passage. At some point, we realize that aging is not as cool as we once thought. As we age, we fear the grim possibility of losing the very freedoms that we coveted in our youth, such as independence. But what if this did not have to be the case?
A key facilitator to our independence is our degree of health, which also decides how well we age. Those who are considered to be aging well typically look younger and are more active than one would expect for their chronological age. What if we have a laxer definition? What if the defining aspect was having a body that is biologically younger than what is stated on some document? For instance, a man may be 83 on paper but could really be 10 years younger based on how well his body works at the molecular level. It seems like science fiction, but it is already here in some ways. For example, a patient might be told by her doctor that her heart is functioning incredibly well for her age.
What we do not yet have is a clinical test that measures thousands of protein levels from many biological systems and breaks the news to us if they – and we – are aging well or not. But we are getting closer. In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers utilized the SOMAscan Platform to chart how our proteomes change with age and found proteins that tracked well with biological aging, which could lead to a better understanding of the molecular underpinnings of the process (Menni et al., 2015). Many of these proteins have been linked previously to aging, but it is unclear how others are contributing to the aging process. Although the results are incredibly promising, more and larger studies are needed to verify and expand on them.
Nevertheless, how exciting will it be to have a test that reveals our biological age? We could be significantly younger than what we are told by some calendar! It would certainly take the sting out of the next time someone wishes us a happy birthday. Who knows, birthdays might once again be a source of joy instead of dread.
Menni, C., Kiddle, S. J., Mangino, M., Vinuela, A., Psatha, M., Steves, C., . . . Valdes, A. M. (2015). Circulating Proteomic Signatures of Chronological Age. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 70(7), 809-816. doi:10.1093/gerona/glu121