By Arlene Weintraub
I am speeding toward a birthday I'm not looking forward to. A big one -- the kind of birthday that gets lampooned in Hallmark cards like the ones that will soon start arriving from friends and family. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down in front of a machine called the H-Scan, which many anti-aging doctors say can determine a person's "real age" (the age described by the tissues of your body, not your driver's license).
The H-Scan uses software and various gizmos to assess 12 biomarkers of aging, including memory, eyesight, hearing, and lung capacity. I felt sure I would ace the test, and in the process garner much-needed assurance that I'm really much younger than my numerical age.
After the hour-long test, the computer spat out what it thought was my real age: 45. My heart sank. I'm not 45. I can't possibly look 45. I hadn't felt so depressed about a test since I got a fluke D on a high school geometry midterm. With renewed sense of purpose, I waited for advice from Dr. Ron Rothenberg of the California Healthspan Institute. I was counting on him to reverse the ravages of time.
CLUE ME IN.
Even before I took the H-Scan test, I was struck by how comprehensive Rothenberg's initial assessment was. The full day routine included an hour-long discussion with the cheerful Rothenberg in his Encinitas (Calif.) office. We discussed some of the topics I had reviewed with my internist back home in New York, such as my bouts of insomnia, a lingering tennis injury, and slightly elevated cholesterol -- all of which I off-handedly attributed to my advancing age. "In this field," he pointed out, "we don't take that as an excuse." I'm younger than his average patient, who is about 55 years old, he estimates. But he told me that people can start anti-aging regimens at any age.
Rothenberg asked me a litany of questions that my internist has never brought up. Do I have frequent problems with my teeth and gums? Are my feet are always cold? Such symptoms, Rothenberg explained, can be signs of hormone deficiencies that may not show up in the annual blood tests -- such as thyroid -- that are done as part of a physical. His scrupulous search for clues of potential health time-bombs even included asking where my ancestors came from.
Rothenberg and I then mused about our similar histories as descendants of Russian Jews. Rothenberg's grandfather immigrated to New York in the early 20th century, and made a name for himself in the Yiddish theater scene. My grandparents, who settled in Providence and Cleveland, were considerably less show biz. One grandfather owned a bakery -- a veritable cholesterol factory, Rothenberg pointed out. Still, my ancestry pointed to little of immediate concern.
Then Rothenberg turned to my diet, a sampling of which I had revealed in an exhaustive 34-page questionnaire, which had taken me two hours to complete. "Gee, where's the protein?" he chided. We came back to that topic later in the day, with the help of his in-house nutritionist.
Interim verdict: no alarming symptoms. But Rothenberg said he'd have to reserve judgment until all my test results came back over the next few weeks. A week before I met with Rothenberg, I had to collect saliva samples four times over the course of one day. That's a standard request from anti-aging physicians, who generally believe hormone levels can't be measured adequately in blood alone, and must be studied at different points during the day to spot unusual peaks and valleys.
Before I met with Rothenberg in Encinitas, I slipped into a lab near my office and left what felt like a gallon of blood. The technician explained that the regimen included eight hormone tests, a bone-density test, and more.
WALK THE LINE.
Part of my age evaluation took place down the street from Rothenberg's office, at a gym run by Robert Yang, a specialist in "corrective exercise" and strength training. Yang, an energetic, self-described Southern California boy, took several measurements of my spine, neck, and head. He put me through exercises to scope out strength and flexibility, and checked out my posture and alignment.
In one test, I wore noise-canceling earphones, closed my eyes, and marched in place -- or so I thought. After a few minutes, he told me to stop. I was about to hit a wall, even though I had started out in the middle of the room.
The experiment, Yang says, shows that my posture is slightly off-kilter, which could be the result of spending many hours a day hunched over a computer, or carrying a heavy backpack on one shoulder back in high school. The alignment problem was discouraging, and if that wasn't bad enough, my results on three strength tests all started with the word "poor," including "poor strength of lower abdominals."
FAT FOR LIFE.
I'm not surprised. I've been having trouble recovering from a back injury on the tennis court -- the clearest message my body has ever sent that I'm no longer in my 20s. Yang suggested I look into chiropractic treatment, but we'll see. I'm more open to his suggestion that I get a personal trainer, which might move me from "poor" to "good," or at least "above average."
Back at Rothenberg's office, I met with Coreen Reinhart, Rothenberg's resident nutritionist. She told me the only alarming thing about my diet is that I'm not getting protein in every meal. Not surprising, as I don't eat red meat. The Healthspan Institute, like many anti-aging clinics, advocates the Zone Diet. Every day, Reinhart explained, I should try to take in 35% protein, 35% carbs, and 30% fat.
She also provided several pages of meal plans, with recipes that included sources of protein such as raw nuts and smoothies with protein powder that had the benefit of simplifying meal planning. The Healthspan Institute advocates supplements such as fish oil, a rich source of the "healthy fat," omega-3. That would augment my normal routine of multivitamins, calcium, and magnesium, which Rothenberg had endorsed. I've heard conflicting opinions about fats, so this recommendation will require more research.
At last we got to the H-Scan. Developed by Richard Hochschild of Corona del Mar, Calif., this test measures memory, reaction time, hearing, sensitivity to tactile signals, lung capacity, and other "biomarkers of aging." It's a computer program connected to a variety of measurement instruments, including a panel of six buttons with corresponding flashing red lights.
In the memory test, Button 2 might light up, followed by Button 3 -- in which case the subject must quickly press 2, then 3. In each round, the computer adds another number -- 2, 3, 6, then 2, 3, 6, 1, and so forth. It didn't stop until I failed to remember the entire sequence of numbers. (Bragging alert: I made it to a sequence of 13 -- "a world record," Rothenberg joked, placing me in the 95th percentile.)
Where I really fell down was in lung function. I had to breathe into a plastic gizmo until I ran out of breath. Apparently I choked before the average person in my age group should, and I ended up in the second percentile. Hence my "real age," 45. The skeptic in me kicked in and said this H-Scan business is a marketing ploy to make patients want to sign on immediately for Rothenberg's regimens. I don't have asthma, and I have never smoked a cigarette, so poor lung capacity seemed unlikely.
I had a bone to pick with Hochschild, so I called him. He told me he's still selling the H-Scan, but he's not actively marketing it, and he hasn't updated the software in a long time. That might explain why I got the result I did. He said that the test is not meant to be used in a vacuum. "Your biological age could depend on 1,000 different things," he said. "We picked 12 of them."
As for my marketing suspicions, he said sometimes even he worries that some anti-aging physicians might misuse the test. He has attended meetings of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M). "When I go, I don't hear a lot of science. I do hear a lot of marketing," he says.
Oddly enough, Rothenberg agreed I shouldn't read too much into the H-Scan results. I'm clearly not having any trouble breathing. Maybe my lungs are naturally smaller than average. Once Rothenberg had all the test results, he called to say my critical hormones are within normal ranges, and the ones that ended up on the low side of normal don't need to be corrected now, because I'm not exhibiting symptoms of hormone deficiency.
The only hormone he recommended for me is one of the least controversial substances in the anti-aging arsenal: melatonin. It's hard to find a critic who thinks this sleep-enhancing hormone can do anyone harm, aside from possibly provoking bad dreams. Rothenberg advised starting small -- say 0.5 milligrams a night -- and going for the controlled-release form, to avoid those annoying early morning wake-ups. This, too, will take more research on my part.
Rothenberg's final verdict: My real age is 32.5.
In a couple of months, I will turn 39. And it's the real 39 -- not the one that people claim to be for years after it's a dim memory. But knowing my honest-to-goodness "real age," courtesy of Rothenberg, will help ease the pain of 39, not to mention next year's 40. So bring on the greeting cards. I can take the jokes.
Weintraub is Science editor for BusinessWeek