A blood test that can show how fast someone is aging – and offers the tantalising possibility of estimating how long they have left to live – is to go on sale to the general public in UK later this year.
The controversial test measures vital structures on the tips of a person’s chromosomes, called telomeres, which scientists believe are one of the most important and accurate indicators of the speed at which a person is aging.
Scientists behind the ?435 test said it will tell whether a person is biologically aging, as measured by the length of their telomeres, and is older or younger than their actual chronological age, as measured by years since birth.
The scientists, however, do not yet believe they can narrow down the prediction to calculate the exact number of months and years a person has yet to live. They do not yet believe the information could be used to calculate the exact number of years a person has left to live, but several studies have indicated that individuals with shorter-thannormal telomeres are likely to die younger than those with longer telomeres.
Medical researchers believe that telomere testing will become widespread within the next five or 10 years, but there are already some scientists who question its value and whether there should be stronger ethical controls over its wider use.
In addition to concerns about how people will react to a test for how old they really are, some scientists are worried that telomere testing may be hijacked by unscrupulous organisations trying to peddle unproven anti-aging remedies and other fake elixirs of life.
The results of the tests might also be of interest to companies offering life-insurance policies or medical cover that depend on a person’s lifetime risk of falling ill or dying prematurely.
However, there is a growing body of respectable scientific opinion that says testing the length of a person’s telomeres could provide vital insights into the risk of dying prematurely from a range of age-related disorders , from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s and cancer.
“We know that people who are born with shorter telomeres than normal also have a shorter lifespan,” said Maria Blasco of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid, who is the inventor of the new commercial telomere test. “But we don’t know whether longer telomeres are going to give you a longer lifespan. That’s not really known in humans.”
“What is new about this test is that it is very precise. We can detect very small differences in telomere length and it is a very simple and fast technique where many samples can be analysed at the same time. Most importantly, we are able to determine the presence of dangerous telomeres – those that are very short.”
Blasco’s company, Life Length, is in talks with companies across Europe to market the test and collect blood samples for analysis.