I Got My Telomere Test, Now What?
Here’s a primer on what you can do to understand your telomere test results
This is the most common question about telomere testing that Spectracell receives: What do I do with the results? It is often followed up by the second most common question: Why isn’t biological age on the report. Here we’ll answer both.
But first, a little background on telomeres…
Telomeres are the protective cap on the ends of our DNA that prevent tangling and fraying when the precious genetic material “unzips” to create a copy of itself. In the last decade, it has become relatively common to measure your telomeres in order to get an insight into how well you are aging, from a cellular perspective.
Every time your cells divide, the DNA “unzips”, creates a copy and then “zips back up”. In doing so, the cell’s telomere gets a wee bit shorter. At some point, the telomere cannot get any shorter – it reaches its limit. Specifically called the Hayflick limit, at this point the cell can no longer divide, so it becomes destined to die through a process called apoptosis (also known as programmed cell death). Although it may sound ominous, it's one of those great biological safeguards because we actually want certain cells in our body to die. Otherwise, defunct and rogue cells (think tumors or mutations, for example) will continue to divide and potentially crowd out young healthy cells. When some cells get too old, from a physiologic perspective, the body does some cellular pruning.
For about the last decade, the ability to measure the length of your telomeres has been commercially available to anyone who is interested. A cautionary note however, telomere testing varies wildly depending on the technology used and sample collection, which is a fascinating subject on its own, but alas a topic for a different blog. (Click here to read about how Not All Telomere Tests are Equal).
That said, if you get a telomere test done by Spectracell Laboratories, you can be assured that the technology used is the same leading technology used in the tens of thousands of research papers published in recent years, which is PCR (for polymerase chain reaction) method on blood taken from a vein. Still, what does the telomere test actually tell you?
What does the report tell me exactly?
First, it depends on whether or not it is your first telomere test. Keeping in mind that telomere results often cannot be compared between laboratories (as mentioned in previous paragraph), if the test is your first test with Spectracell, then the results will be comparing your telomere length to a population of people your same chronological age. In other words, if you are 52 years old, your telomere report will list a score that compares your telomeres to all the other 52 year olds in the reference population. For example, it may report that you have a good telomere score, and that your result is better than 80% of other 52 year olds.
It is worth noting that Spectracell was the first company in America to offer telomere testing to the public back in 2011. Prior to that, if you wanted telomere testing done in the United States, it was only possible in a research setting as part of clinical trials. Consequently, Spectracell has one of the biggest databases of telomere test results of any company because we have been doing it the longest.
So, to recap, if it is your first telomere test, you will get a report of how your average telomere length (on white blood cells, the most commonly tested cell type) compares to the rest of the population. In this scenario, there are basically three types of results:
- The “Keep-Up-The-Good-Work” result. Your telomere score is really good and you compare well to the population. In this case, it is almost a “give yourself a pat on the back” type of situation, as your telomeres are good and you should keep doing what your’e doing. Whether your telomeres are good because you lead a healthy lifestyle or because you have good genetics, or both cannot be fully known. But the bottom line is this – from a cellular aging standpoint, you are healthy and what you are doing so far is working. (at least for telomeres, but there are other forms of biological aging, which we’ll touch upon in a moment).
- The “Wake-Up Call” result. Your telomere score is poor, which means your cells are aging faster than they should, but you have some obvious lifestyle factors that can be modified. The most common is obesity or being overweight, since excess fat is inflammatory and we all know that inflammation is the bain of a healthy cell’s existence. Or, perhaps your weight is fine but you indulge in a little more alcohol than your body appreciates. Or, perhaps you have high blood pressure that you manage with medication but never really got to the root cause of why your blood pressure is high in the first place. (hint – it is often nutrient deficiencies). Or, perhaps you have a sedentary lifestyle. Or, perhaps you are routinely eating a food or more insidious, a food additive that is just plain unhealthy. Sugar is a big culprit. So are inflammatory vegetable oils. So are processed grains and meats. Whatever it is, this is the report that makes someone take a more honest look at some obvious lifestyle habits that once corrected, may improve their telomere score dramatically.
- The “Have to Dig Deeper” result. This is the most enigmatic result because it requires a deeper dive into the physiology of the person. This result is one where the telomere score is poor (meaning the telomeres are shorter and the cells are aging prematurely) but the person has no obvious lifestyle factors that are unhealthy. This person may be optimal weight, taking no medications, eating (what they assume are) healthy foods, exercising regularly, non-smoker with no chronic disease conditions like hypertension or diabetes. This is the result that puzzles people at first glance, but once a deeper dive into cellular health is done, a clear picture of “next-level” therapies emerges. For example, one of the biggest contributors to telomere erosion is stress, physical or psychological. In fact, this result is common in very highly-functioning power people – think CEOs, business owners, high-level professionals that are at the top of their game. The reason is that they may have incredible discipline in their health habits, but the stresses of fast-paced lives eventually take their toll. Here’s the good news: there are “next-level” diagnostics and therapies that make a huge difference. For example, one of the main drivers of telomere attrition is cellular deficiencies in micronutrients. If the cells lack certain vitamins or minerals, they age. Spectracell tests for micronutrient deficiencies and correcting said deficiencies is one of the most effective ways to protect telomeres. But there are also other, even simpler methods for protecting telomeres such as fasting, that, when implemented successfully and regularly, can improve a telomere score profoundly.
Now, if you have had telomere testing by Spectracell previously, then you have even more information because now you have (1) your telomere score compared to a similarly aged population AND (2) you also have your telomere score compared to yourself. This is where telomere testing is really a helpful biomarker – when you have serial testing (about once yearly is what is recommended) and you can see how stable your telomere score stays over time. In addition to the type of result mentioned above, you also have a window into the relative rate of your cellular aging.
What about biological age?
Which brings us to the second most commonly asked question about telomere testing: Why doesn’t Spectracell put biological age on the report? The simple reason is that reducing a person’s telomere length to a biological age is grossly oversimplifying the physiological complexities of aging. In other words, telomeres are only one of many markers of aging. Other things affect cellular aging – inflammation, oxidative stress, nutrient status, lipid peroxidation, glucose metabolism, hormones – and telomere length is but one of many factors that affect cellular health. Since Spectracell places an emphasis on scientific credibility, we know that putting biological age on a telomere report is misleading because it is oversimplifies biological age down to just one biomarker. From a marketing perspective, putting biological age on a telomere report is golden because people love it. From a scientific rigor perspective, it is misleading and oversimplifying. In the name of scientific credibility, Spectracell chooses the latter.
For more information on the link between MicroNutrients and Telomeres, click here.
To purchase the Telomere test, click here.
Direct-to-consumer laboratory testing via online purchase is not permitted in the following states: CA, MD, MA, NJ, NY, PA, and RI. Therefore, specimens cannot be collected and lab results cannot be delivered to residents in these states. Consumers must order testing via a network doctor with a Spectracell Laboratory account. To find a provider near you, click here.