I hit 50 last year feeling pretty smug. Fit as a fiddle thanks to 30 years of hell-for-leather exercise, I was also the owner of pretty good skin for my age, free from significant lines, sagging or discolouration. A skincare author and beauty journalist of 25 years, practising what I preach evidently paid off. I’m scrupulous about my skincare, while regular Profhilo hydrating injections and skin tone-evening laser facials iron out the bits that topical products can’t reach.
Beauty treatments can only do so much; genes are partly responsible for the way we age as well. How much exactly is unclear – estimates of how much of skin ageing is due to genes as opposed to environmental factors vary wildly, from 10 to 60 per cent. But I always figured my dad’s remarkably age-resistant skin was giving me a genetic helping hand.
I've done tests in the past to determine how my skin was ageing. Olay’s skin age-determining technology, now used in its Skin Advisor app, had me four years younger when it launched. Nomige , a company that custom-creates skincare based on your DNA profile, determined I was above average when it comes to ageing well; two out of the three genetic ‘skin age markers’ they analysed scored a perfect 10.
We know chronic stress is as bad as smoking in terms of its impact on our health and longevity.
With my skin age scoring well below my actual age, I was fairly confident that the rest of me would fare well too when I decided to try a 'biological age' test. This would determine how 'young' I was on the inside and came courtesy of hormone and integrative medicine specialist Dr Sohere Roked’s Real Age (Telomere) Test. It gives an accurate measure of how old your body really is, based on the health of your DNA. I took it really just to give myself a self-satisfied pat on the back. With my skin genes being top of the class, I looked forward to confirming my overall health and longevity were hitting it out of the park, too.
What is a telomere test?
Telomeres are protective caps on the ends of your chromosomes, little wormy structures inside your cells that carry your DNA. Like that plastic bit on the end of your shoelace, telomeres protect the chromosome and therefore your genetic material from fraying and falling apart.
They shorten with age and through oxidative stress, in other words with life-inflicted environmental, physiological and psychological damage – think pollution, trauma, illness, crappy diet, etc. Once they get critically short, your cell stops dividing and enters a sort of comatose state called 'senescence'. Having lots of senescent cells hanging around the body is understood to contribute to cancers and other degenerative diseases. You don’t want that – basically, you want your telomeres to be as long as possible, for as long as possible.
Having done a simple blood test to determine the state of my telomeres, I walked into Dr Roked’s office expecting to learn mine stretched to infinity. Well, pride sure does come before a fall. They didn’t. On the graph featuring ‘very short’, ‘short’, ‘normal’, ‘long’ and ‘very long’ telomere ranges, mine were ‘normal’, but only just. They were teetering on the edge of being short compared to other people who’d taken the test. Given its cost, these would mostly be well-to-do and highly likely on top of their health, I tell myself, but still, only 12 per cent of people my age had shorter telomeres and therefore a higher risk of cellular ageing. My current biological age turned out to be 56. Shit!
I felt rather embarrassed at my over-confidence and frankly quite upset. Thank God I had unticked the ‘projected life length’ box when I took the test - what knucklehead wants to know their potential death year?. Telomere testing can in no way determine this, but it can give a decent indication of likelihood if current circumstances don’t get addressed. Imagine walking around with that hanging over your head?
Can you 'lengthen' your telomeres to help you live longer?
I wondered why Dr Roked was still smiling when she’d just presented me with my death warrant, but she assured me it wasn’t all as bad as that. “This is a warning that something is not quite as it should be, despite appearances,” she said. “But it tells you how your cells are behaving, not how they’re irrefutably programmed to continue on this path." Phew! There was hope.
She went on to explain: "Your cellular health is dependent partly on your gene programming (the inherited part) but also to a huge extent on your lifestyle and circumstances. The constant interplay between the two means you have the power to ‘switch’ gene expression off and on by making the right lifestyle choices.”
This means, according to Roked, that you can slow down the telomere shortening process, adding a vital dose of DNA protection to decrease the risk of things such as cancer and cardiovascular disease and shave years off your biological age.
But can you actually lengthen your telomeres? Surely that's the elixir of youth? Telomere function is not yet 100 per cent understood, so ‘telomere lengthening’ is a well-supported theory rather than an exact science at this point. What is pretty much accepted is that you can slow down the telomere shortening process through a balanced diet, regular exercise and stress management. But Roked also claims that she’s seen clients significantly 'lengthen' theirs after their likely telomere-shortening culprits were tackled with a bespoke programme of supplements, meds and lifestyle tweaks.
“I have clients in their 60s whose telomeres are in the ‘extra long’ range,” she says. They tend to take a lot of supplements which some people baulk at, but there does appear to be a direct correlation between bespoke supplementing for known deficiencies and longer telomeres.”
Why is my biological age higher than my actual age?
My question concerning myself is: what deficiencies?! I eat a balanced diet of fresh food, as home-cooked by my foodie husband and before him, my mum. I exercise five hours a week. I’ve never smoked, I don’t like drugs, I barely drink. I have no history of mental illness, extreme trauma or depression, nor of any other disease. I’m quite content, thank you very much. To boot, our garden and proximity to the river should offset the Central London toxic fumes we marinate in. How, I asked Dr Roked, have I ended up with piffling telomeres under surely ideal circumstances. And what was she – sorry, what was I – going to do about it?
How does stress affect ageing?
She had some immediate theories as to how to make impactful changes to a lifestyle that, on the surface, looks pretty peachy. “How are your stress levels?” she queried. Not so bad, I thought. Yes, I never stop working, never take breaks, and have a tendency to over-analyse and panic about things that might happen. Yet I consider myself pretty laid-back compared to a lot of my beauty industry peers, plus I find that exercising totally drains any elevated stress levels, at least for a while every day.
Roked mused that it might be possible that stress had become a way of life for me to such an extent that I no longer noticed. “It’s something we can easily test, and I think we should,” she said. “We know chronic stress is as bad as smoking in terms of its impact on our health and longevity. So if your levels turn out to be higher than you think or feel they are, it’s essential to manage it properly.”
Sleep and ageing
My sleep patterns were the next thing in her sights. After a lifetime of sleeping like a baby, I suffered three years of relentless stress-related insomnia in the early 2010s. I got out of it eventually, but my sleep never entirely returned to normal and I was painfully aware that thanks to good old Covid and chaotic work circumstances, the situation was once again on a downward trajectory. Which was stressing me out. “I don’t need to tell you that’s an issue,” said Roked. “A lack of sleep means your body can’t sufficiently regenerate, refuel and repair.” She meant, but didn’t quite say, it can be a silent assassin.
How does perimenopause affect ageing?
It was her third hypothesis that truly surprised me. To manage hellish periods, I was still on a low-oestrogen pill at the age of 50. It suited me well and brought the added advantage of topping me up with oestrogen throughout perimenopause , when natural levels steadily fall. I knew it was part of the reason my skin was behaving well, as dipping oestrogen means collagen production stalls considerably, with sagging and wrinkles as a result. I saw no reason to come off my pill at all, but Roked did. “The oestrogen and progesterone in birth control pills are synthetic and can cause low-level inflammation in the body,” she explained. You’d never notice it, but chronic inflammation of any kind undermines the body’s systems and is at the heart of many degenerative diseases. I suspect that in your case, it might have something to do with your shortened telomeres.”
Well knock me over with a feather, I had no idea. And I wasn’t best pleased with the implications. “I’d advise coming off the pill, and, at your age, considering HRT instead,” said Roked.
Which supplements can help slow the ageing process?
Dr Roked continued: "I’d also consider taking a vitamin B supplement for overall stress management and adrenal support, ashwagandha , an adaptogenic herb that appears to lower cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, shows really good results as well and is worth taking on a daily basis. Revisiting some sort of mindfulness practice, which I know you’ve lapsed from, is a good idea as well.”
This, she said, was all top-line advice that could make a significant difference. But to truly know what was happening under the surface, and come up with a plan to precision-target my issues and so potentially 'lengthen' those stunted telomeres, she needed my blood, as well as my urine and saliva.
Roked’s ‘Reduce My Internal Age’ package involves gene, hormone, adrenal, and vitamin and mineral testing, plus a variety of health assessments and a number of consultations, on top of the telomere test. The results allow her to tailor-make a prescription of medicines and supplements alongside nutritional and lifestyle advice.
“It’s a drag to see that you may not be quite as healthy as you thought you were, but you’re not remotely sick and overall, you’re doing fine for your age,” Roked told me. “But to stop your current issues potentially affecting your health in the future, you can opt for preventative medicine – which is what this programme really is. It’s a way to take control of how you age.”
Well, I don’t intend to take my telomere test results lying down, primarily because I might never sleep again with the worry of it. That’s the problem, of course, with a medicinal tarot service such as this: if the outcome is not what you were hoping for, you’re going to be in it for the long haul.
So, with my bodily fluids now under scrutiny in a lab, I can only hope the mysteries they hold will offer solutions rather than further shockers I wasn’t aware of. I'll report back on the outcome, the plan, the progress and, eventually, the reveal of what had can really make longer telomeres! Watch this space.
In the coming weeks, I'll tell my tale of how exactly can I transition from 25 years of Pill use to HRT without major upheaval – and will it halt or even reverse some of the damage I’ve apparently done? Will tests show that my cortisol levels are through the roof. Am I under a dangerous level of stress that needs managing in new ways? If I manage my stress, will I sleep any better? Can a battery of supplements really give me a longer lifespan? Am I a martyr to my genetic predispositions or will the record show that my healthy habits are overcoming my destiny? Wish me luck - and my telomeres!
Ingeborg van Lotringen is author of Great Skin: secrets the beauty industry doesn’t tell you , £10.19). Follow her story by signing up to our newsletter .
Dr Sohere Roked’s Real Age (Telomere) Test , including an in-depth consultation to assess the results, is £750.
Reduce My Internal Age test costs vary (different tests may be needed for different people), but is typically around £2,500 for all the tests and two consultations per month over six months. The medication and supplements are extra. For more information, go to www.drsohereroked.co.uk