Are You Aging Faster than You Think?

Credit: Photograph by Adam Levey

I'm closing in on 60. But I've always taken comfort in knowing that whenever the mood strikes, I can knock off a four-mile run through Central Park, grind out a 60-mile day on the bike, or haul myself up a 5.9 rock-climbing route. I'm 6 feet tall, and my weight, in the low 170s, hasn't budged since my thirties. Doctor visits consist of a pat on the head. And I've been told I look 10 years younger so often that I've almost come to believe it.

So you could have called me confident when I walked into the office of Dr. Joseph Raffaele for a battery of tests to determine what he calls my Physio Age. Instead of taking a man's chronological age at face value, Raffaele uses advanced technology to assess the function of key body systems — cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and cognitive among them — and assigns each a "physiological age." The body's systems age at different rates. If one gets older faster than it should — and starting in the mid-thirties, the function of the heart, brain, and immune system normally declines around 1 percent a year — it can drag you down a black hole toward life-threatening conditions: diabetes, cancer, heart disease. Not that I was worried about any of that. My healthy lifestyle, I figured, would shield me from poor results and perhaps even prove I was something of a SuperAger.

Raffaele strode into the examination room with a sheaf of printouts. The good news: I had the skin and lungs of a 40-year-old and, astoundingly, the immune system of a 20-year-old. But I heard only the bad: My Cardio Age was 72. In other words, my arteries and heart, the system that keeps the whole ship afloat, were those of a man more than a decade older.

I went home slightly traumatized. After thinking about it, though, I realized I shouldn't have been blindsided. My blood pressure has been creeping upward for years. As a freelance writer, I ride a stressful roller coaster of constant deadlines. And my father died from congestive heart failure.

There was more. The memory portion of the cognitive tests I took spat back terrible numbers. I have noticed that sometimes, maybe more than sometimes, I forget the names of people I've interviewed, and not just from the distant past. I had no way of knowing whether it was garden-variety middle-age memory decline or something scarier. The test results suggested the latter. I thought of my grandfather, a lawyer, who in his seventies was so clever at covering up his memory problems that only his secretary knew his mind was failing.

Results like these grab my attention in a way that a bad LDL score never would.

And there's a reason you're not seeing these. Physicians are trained to look for disease, not how well your body is aging. If your checkup results don't fall into a somewhat arbitrary danger zone, you're deemed good to go. That's despite the fact that, by your fifties, odds are good that you'll be diagnosed with a "disease of aging," one of the maladies that occur when systems start wearing down quickly, like atherosclerosis or diabetes.

Recently, however, a new path has emerged, a field that looks at health through the prism of aging. Here, doctors use high-tech tools to measure the aging process at an organ level (how well do the brain, heart, lungs, and immune system actually work?), the systemic level (how much bodywide inflammation do you have?), and the genetic level (how long and healthy are your telomeres?). Poor function in any one of these areas can illustrate the rate at which your body is growing old.

The amazing part: It's now possible to identify which of the body's systems are going downhill faster, and to tailor a plan to slow that decline and the onset of disease.

To that end, we consulted with Raffaele and the foremost academic leaders in aging. They'll help you understand things that you may never have associated with aging well. How elastic are your arteries? How much air can you blow from your lungs? Are you carrying the immunity-draining cytomegalovirus? "We found that the things clinical doctors put the most emphasis on — cholesterol, blood pressure — were not that important in predicting longevity," says UCLA epidemiologist Morgan Levine.

The point: Unlike chronological age, Physio Ages are malleable. After receiving my test results last December, I realized I no longer had a margin for lifestyle error. So I tightened up my exercise regimen and diet and made some of the specific tweaks. I've driven my Cardio Age down a few years, and while I know I can't expect miracles for my memory, it's my hope that I've made changes that can help me escape, or at least delay, my grandfather's fate.

As Raffaele puts it, "If you understand how you're aging, you can slow it down."

Here is your guide to assessing — and slowing — everything from your cognitive age to your metabolic decline. 

What Is Your Cognitive Age?

How Old Are Your Lungs?

What Is the Real Age of Your Heart?

How Old Is Your Immune System?

How Has Your Metabolism Changed with Age?