The first step to aging well is knowing how well you are aging.
The bedrock of all the diseases and disabilities of aging is the process of aging itself. It is slow and insidious, and it begins on its path to disease decades before it shows up and announces itself. Biomarkers are measurements of a particular process within an organ system that’s been shown to correlate with changes in the structure and function of that organ system. Biomarkers of aging take the idea a step further—measuring changes in processes that are known to correlate specifically with functional declines as we age. They allow us to measure, monitor and even alter an individual’s aging process—a powerful, and self-empowering, new tool for extending that person’s healthspan.
Each person’s aging process is determined by a web of interconnected lifestyle, life history and genetic factors that’s as individual as our fingerprints. Biomarkers of aging allow us to assess a person’s aging process—and allows that person to make informed personal choices about the number of new ways available to manage it. Each biomarker measures a process within an organ system that correlates to declines that come as we age. The maxim of biomarkers: The first step to aging well is knowing how well you are aging.
Biomarkers are one of those areas of science that can spark debate among researchers. But there is strong clinical evidence that there are several biomarkers of aging that meet the basic standard generally accepted in the scientific community: that they are better predictors of long-term physiological, cognitive and structural function than strict chronological age.
Biomarkers of aging generated from blood tests and other medical devices, most of them established and widely available, allow physicians to objectively measure the status and health of each organ system. A device that measures the stiffness of a person’s arteries, for instance, yields the biomarker for assessing how that person’s cardiovascular system is aging. A blood test detects a biomarker for the aging of the immune system. Computerized mental agility tests generate a biomarker that can assess and preview long-term cognitive function.
Over the past 15 years, Dr. Joseph Raffaele and his partner in PhysioAge Medical Group, Dr. Ronald Livesey, have developed a proprietary method in which they compare a patient’s results with a growing database, an assessment that yields essentially a physiological age for that system, and of the body as a whole, that is more meaningful than the person’s chronological age. For instance, the biomarker of arterial stiffness might reveal that a 50-year-old has a cardiovascular system typical of someone 10 years older. Or 10 years younger, if he’s doing everything right and is blessed with good genes to boot. Based on the numbers, the doctors prescribe a highly personalized program of therapies—ranging from basic lifestyle changes to nutritional supplements to biodentical hormone replacement therapy—aimed at improving them. Re-measurements of the biomarkers at six-month intervals show what’s working and what needs to be adjusted.
This is evidence-based medicine of the most precise and meaningful kind: a demand for hard numbers showing that a specific therapy is having a beneficial effect on the aging process of a specific organ system of a specific person.
The biomarkers of aging are surely no crystal ball. But they are useful tools in monitoring and managing an individual’s aging process—both indicating long-term function of particular organ systems, and of the body as a whole, and spotting trajectories for specific diseases. And together they are arguably the best way available right now for someone to measure the effectiveness of the interventions undertaken to increase his or her “healthspan”—the number of years he or she lives in good health and with high function and vitality.