A new genetic test is about to hit the market that could reveal how fast you are getting older
(biologically, not chronologically) and thus, how much longer you will live, according to researchers in Spain.
Obviously, such a test is bound to stir up quite a bit of controversy . . . and that is just what has happened. Some experts are quick to shoot down the possibility that any test can pinpoint when one will leave this earth, while others argue that even a good estimate of one’s remaining years could be beneficial. Is it a matter of your “right to know” or a matter of responsible medicine, or both? Let’s look at the facts. How would this test work?
Researchers in Spain are developing a blood test to measure the length of the telomeres, protective structures on the tips of chromosomes, which help guard against chromosomal damage. Prior studies have found a link between the length of telomeres and lifespan
, and the new test would show if your biological age (which is the age of your body cells) matches up with your age in years. Theoretically, this information could tell you how many more remaining years you can look forward to.
The problem, according to experts, is that scientists don’t have a thorough understanding of telomeres so the accuracy of such a test would be questionable. Even though telomeres do change with age, there is a lot of variation among the length of individual telomeres within the general population. For example, a 21-year-old and a 61-year-old could possibly have telomeres of the same length. Scientists argue this problem could be overcome by creating a statistical database of telomere length to help serve as a standard measure.
Carol Greider, a geneticist at John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, says, “We cannot tell how old a person is by looking at their telomeres. In addition, you can’t tell someone they have the cells of the 50-year-old, even though they’re 20. I would say that it is not possible to tell a person’s biological age from the telomere length. If a test says it will tell you how long you will live, clearly that’s not true.”
But could you get a ballpark biological age by looking at telomeres? Possibly, but only if you consider other factors as well. A person’s age, gender, smoking history, family history, and sun exposure can all affect telomere length.More reasons why critics see the test as a problem.
Aside from questionable accuracy, the test could open a Pandora’s box of problems. Insurance companies could possibly require telomere testing and use the information to decide how much you will pay for life and health insurance. In addition, people could develop an unhealthy fear of death which would open them up to all sorts of snake oil salesmen selling magic elixirs that promise to lengthen telomeres or some such nonsense.
Of course, ultimately consumers will decide if they want to know how long they have left on this earth. Some may want the information so they can make different life choices while others may choose to continue living as if they’ll live to be 100
, come what may. While some feel the information falls within a person’s “right to choose,” science has the responsibility of making sure consumers understand exactly why it the genetic changes mean. That is not a responsibility to be taken lightly.