So, you’re 56 – or 36. Maybe 27 or 42. Perhaps 68. (You get the idea.) Your driver’s license says it all (whether you want it to or not). But the buzz lately says there’s age and then there’s “Real Age.” Yes, your kitchen cabinets, weight set, medicine cabinet, diploma, car, even your speed dial apparently tell the real story your driver’s license (or dear mother) can’t.
The real story here is your “real” biological age as supposedly determined by your responses to approximately 150 questions. They run the gamut – from exercise routine to driving habits to nutrition to stress factors. At the end of the quiz, you receive a number as well as a rundown of practices that added to or reduced your biological age. According to the site, the quiz was based on “125 different factors that can influence the rate of aging” as determined by review of 25,000 medical studies. Some 27 million people have taken the quiz.
Hmmm. 27 million people. That’s a lot of buzz. (Oprah’s doing, in part.) We don’t have anything against tests that can offer relatively harmless entertainment and/or some useful advice. Let’s check it out, we thought. Initial thoughts? Not surprisingly, a mixed bag. We liked the emphasis on strength training, muscle mass maintenance and everyday rigorous activity (Grok’s specialty). The health history section is more detailed than most. Additionally, for each reported health issue, the quiz asked if you were treating the condition with not just prescription medication but diet and exercise as well as herbs and supplements. (Not that it’s an exhaustive list, but still….) We liked the social wellness questions. Some attention was given to stress, particularly financial stress (timely, we thought).
On the other hand, there’s the cholesterol hobby horse – even ye olde “total cholesterol” number. No mention of triglycerides. Nothing about blood sugar or inflammation markers. (Sure, these aren’t standard tests like cholesterol, but we’ve taken issue with that point in the past.) Although it asks questions to determine your BMI, it doesn’t ask for body fat (again, many respondents might not know their numbers) or even frame size. And while we liked the supplement section and emphasis on amount of each vitamin/mineral, we wondered why the list was a measly 5 nutrients long. No questions about fish oil or any other supplement (e.g. aspirin, etc.) for that matter. Hmmm…
Oh, the nutrition section. (Did you think we possibly wouldn’t have anything to say about this one?) There’s the obligatory emphasis on whole grains. Are you getting your 6-11 servings a day? Uh, no. That earned us a big red “X” in our health plan. Do you eat red meat more than once a week? Another big “X.” (Yet another demonization of a perfectly good food.) Little to no attention was given to sugar intake, processed foods, or food quality (pesticides/hormones/antibiotics/grain versus grass-fed/etc.). There was no mention of chemical load from our personal environments (lawn treatments, urban residence, occupational chemical exposure, etc.). Likewise, no questions about relaxation techniques – practices that would counteract the physiological impacts of psychological stress.
But our biggest surprise and serious beef about the quiz wasn’t to be found anywhere in the test itself. It was in learning that RealAge.com sells its members’ answers (health profiles, essentially) to pharmaceutical giants and then relays drug pitches to members as selected by the pharmaceutical companies. In fact, drug companies are able to target members based on reported symptoms alone – before conditions have been diagnosed by medical professionals. RealAge, the marketing “middleman” accepts the pharmaceutical giants’ promotion lists and sends members informative, pharmaceutical sponsored email “newsletters” tailored to their medical concerns. Members are generally left in the dark about this relationship, agreeing to only a simple (and vague) statement, “We will share your personal data with third parties to fulfill the services that you have asked us to provide to you.” Needless to say, we object to the conflict of interest in this picture: pharmaceutical industry involvement in (and profit from) a site that presents itself as pure, impartial science and health education. (By the way, you can take the test without becoming a member and subjecting yourself to this marketing ploy.)
As juicy as they are, let’s put aside pharmaceutical interests and divergent thinking on healthy practices for a moment to look at the final result – or how it’s presented at least (the magic number!). Surely, the test stretches the realm of scientific validity. (In fact, that puts it very generously.) This kind of basic, fractional survey might be able to pinpoint areas of concern/positive effort (in the context of conventional thinking), but it just can’t provide an accurate picture of true health let alone a specific age to represent that relative state of healthfulness.
In the end, maybe it’s also the concept of “dialing back” age that doesn’t sit well from a rational or more personal perspective. An ideally healthy person of 42 years can consider himself 38, 33, or 48? Who decided how healthy a 42-year-old is supposed to be? Or a 33-year-old for that matter? Why does a healthy 56-year-old need to consider himself anything other than 56. Does health really need to have an age assigned to it? This relative framework seems, on some level, to miss the point.
In our culture, we’re supposed to want to feel and look younger. Shedding the years (however symbolically) might make us feel better (or worse) in the moment, but it’s ultimately a gimmick. While it might startle a few people into action, it seems like a distraction from the impact of our habits on health. (At best, it’s a serious simplification.)
Final assessment? We admit, quizzes like this can be fun, and they can offer people a very general idea of the road they’re on (good or bad). But that’s as charitable as we’re able to be. Our advice: take the quiz if you’re so inclined (wisely declining the membership option), but take it with a healthy grain of salt.
Have you taken the Real Age quiz? What are your thoughts on this test or informal assessments like this? Weigh in on the discussion.