Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Biomarkers for Longevity and Health

Photo by Martin Sharman.
Everybody dies. If you're lucky, you get to grow old first.

However, aging is correlated with an increasing number of bodily complaints.

Yet people don't all age at the same rate.

Genetics, environmental factors, access to affordable healthcare (provided by benefits, income and proximity), and lifestyle choices affect our aging process.

Well, and we can never completely outrun Father Time.

This week, I read a The Guardian's summary of a recent study that illustrates this variation:

At 38 years old, participants of the Dunedin Study Birth Cohort were found to demonstrate biological "ages" ranging from 28 to 61.

Why did the nearly thousand participants age at different rates?

Here are the 18 biomarkers used in the Dunedin Birth Cohort study. I'm using the labels from Figure 3 of the research publication itself.
  1. HbA1c
  2. Cardiorespiratory fitness (VO2Max)
  3. Waist:Hip Ratio
  4. FEV1/FVC
  5. FEV1
  6. Mean arterial pressure
  7. BMI
  8. Leukocyte telomere length
  9. Creatinine clearance
  10. Urea Nitrogen
  11. Lipoprotein(a)
  12. Triglycerides
  13. Gum Health
  14. Total cholesterol 
  15. White blood cell count
  16. hs CRP
  17. HDL cholesterol
  18. ApoB100/ApoA1

Before I started my graduate program in gerontology, I could recognize and explain maybe six of these biomarkers at best. Now I know more about another six. I will need to research the most obscure six.

These 18 biomarkers were employed by Daniel H. Belsky, et al (of Duke University School of Medicine) and published online in June 2015 by the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  Abstract.

Remember, there is a more accessible summary by The Guardian.

When I read about the physical side of aging, I frequently encounter research about various biomarkers of longevity and health. Because I want to focus on controllable factors, I look through my magnifying glass at biomarkers that can be modified through lifestyle choices.  

I ask myself daily, "What am I doing today for my octogenarian self?"
[Note: This post's purpose is to raise awareness. This is not medical advice. Please consult with a licensed medical professional in order to better manage your health with preventative care and/or curative care.]

Depending on our education level, income and social status, we may be able to exert a lot of control over our diet, exercise, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, proper use of prescription medications (and rejection of street drugs), exposure to pollutants, effective stress management (and overall good emotional health), and beneficial social engagement.

The American Federation of Aging Research has a very short guide to the Biomarkers of Aging. They explain that scientists are still trying to pin down what measurable physical attributes can help them predict the aging process. Here is a key quote from their this publication:

"Simply put, biomarkers need to be simple and inexpensive to use. They should cause little or no pain and stress. And they must measure aging accurately."

Ah, "measure aging accurately." That's constantly being debated, and the proliferation of tests and studies will only extend the debate. Because there isn't a set list of biomarkers, it's a bit foolish for me to enumerate them. And these biomarkers can be really technical.

Before concluding, let me contextualize my interest in biomarkers.

In the years since becoming a gerontologist, I have taken a variety of stances towards aging.

I cycle through these approaches: being stressed out, researching voraciously, obsessing over minutiae of diet and exercise, hanging out with my doctor (GP) and other medical professionals in an effort to prevent and treat emerging issues, distracting myself with life's pleasures (the beneficial-to-least-harmful pleasures), and seeking emotional-spiritual acceptance.

If I were limited to only one approach to aging, I must concede that I am best served when I take a spiritual approach to accepting the aging process as inevitable but living purposefully with each day that I'm granted life.


Waist:Hip Ratio: A Biomarker for Longevity and Health
Books on Aging and Spiritual Growth
Leisure World Cohort Turns 90
Walking Rate Correlates with Longevity 


  1. a caregiver forced to learn so much about the medical field, I am aware of about 8 or 9 of those biomarkers...but have no idea what my own are.Truthfully, I really appreciate your conclusion that a purposeful spiritual approach with good sense and regular visits to your doctor will probably keep you as healthy as can be through these shark-infested waters of aging. As always, thanks for your info and I bought that book you told us to read last night!

    1. Thanks for reading. All my best to you as you manage your own health! And, yes, I think ultimately a spiritual approach is the best (but I am still SUPER curious about my own HbA1c score). Enjoy Haruf. I think the last 20 pages will look oddly familiar to you as an elder lawyer. (But don't skip ahead or rush to it. Let it unfold. It's so poetic.)

  2. Hi Karen! Yes I think I agree with you that it all can be confusing and almost impossible to keep up with--but in the end, having a sense of who we are on a spiritual level and what that means in the big picture helps to keep it all in perspective. And while I find all the information about bio-markers fascinating, and will likely follow along with what you share about them in your future posts, if I've learned anything in life it's that there is not certainty in anything. Thanks for sharing. ~Kathy

    1. True, it's hard to bank on certainty. So I will have a little dark chocolate after I finish my kale salad. If I'm really feeling wild, I eat the chocolate first.

  3. I've heard of 9 of them; know about 3 of them; curious about all of them So I look forward to your series.

    1. I am wondering if I'm going to get too far over my head. I can only have the perspective of "informed health consumer." We'll see how it goes. I am hoping to at least have a "better" understanding even if having a "great" understanding proves to be out of reach. Thanks for reading!

  4. Very interesting! I've enjoyed reading about the Blue Zones projects and will definitely appreciate your upcoming series. Small steps can yield big results as we try to improve our lives. I, too, believe maintaining a healthy mind/body/spirit balance is truly what enhances my life the most. Thanks for sharing your findings with us!

    1. Oh, I will have to look into the Blue Zones projects. Thanks for the tip. Balance. That's tricky, but it's really the best goal!

  5. Karen, I think your approach is perfect. We are what we are and changing a great deal about our life is simply not going to happen. All we can hope to do is the best of which we are capable.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks! I'm having all kinds of issues with bones, joints and soft tissue all up and down my right side. I have to keep things in perspective and do one day at a time (and focus on gratitude, because at this point, nobody but my yoga teachers have even noticed). Thanks for your comment about HOPE!

  6. It's all pretty much Greek to me, which is why I look forward to learning more with your series on the biomarkers.

    1. I will do my best. I'm not a medical professional, but I feel as though as a consumer of medical services (and a gerontologist), I should probably try harder to be more educated about such things. I'll do my best, with a lot of "ask a licensed medical professional" reminders.

  7. People grow old eventually, and with that they would seem to lose some of their faculties. Eventually, they will need some more help. Biomarkers do play a role in that end, as it can help us more properly identify the age of a person, so that we'll know what habits to stop, as our way of slowing down a bit and taking care of themselves. Thanks for your observations and insights!

    Marcia Sherman @ Comfort Keepers

    1. Thanks for reading and working to support quality of life.

  8. This is fascinating information. I have read that telomeres are key with aging as well.

    1. It's an interesting marker. I think researchers are still pinning down what modifiable traits correlate with longer length. But I'll have to read (and reread) a bit more about that before I post about that marker in my upcoming series.

  9. Wow, there is so much fascinating information here. I'm always eager to learn more about the whole aging process but ultimately I agree with your approach to live purposefully and gratefully.

    1. That's such a hard balance (work at something but let go), isn't it? All my best to you and to all readers. Have a lovely week.

  10. Very interesting for sure. The aging process is fascinating indeed. And yes, if we are lucky we do get to experience it. I like taking it day by day - it gets to overwhelming otherwise.