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Why Biological Age Matters More Than Birth Age

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Smoking, tanning, stressing—there are a handful of habits you know will make you look older than you are. But no matter your behavior, your body might actually be wired to grow old at a faster rate. Some people actually have organs and chromosomes that age at an accelerated rate, putting them at an increased risk for age-related illnesses like heart disease and cancer (and making them look older than they are), according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the study, researchers put roughly 1,000 New Zealanders through a whole slew of biological functioning tests, including those of kidney function, lung capacity, cholesterol, blood pressure, and eye structure. (Check out 7 Fitness Tests That Gauge Your Life Expectancy.) The results? At 38 years old, the participants exhibited biological ages ranging from as young as 30 to as old as 60.

Most people’s “biological age”—or the condition of their heart health, chromosomes, organs, and immune system—progresses at the same rate as their birth age. But in reality, very little is known about how our bodies age. So why do some people’s bodies age faster or slower? Outside of the generic hypothesis that it’s due to some combination of genes and environmental influences, experts aren't sure. (Watch out for these 3 Bad Habits That’ll Ruin Your Future Health.) And it’s not just your organs and DNA that age. Researchers also found that fast-agers performed worse on mental acuity tests as well as balance and motor coordination, and even looked well over their 38 years.

"This showed that already early in life we can see symptoms of advanced age in young people, symptoms that correspond to declining physical and cognitive function, long before age-related disease actually develops," said study author Daniel Belsky, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at Duke University's School of Medicine and Center for Aging.

And while this news might seem a bit scary, it's pretty significant in the field of aging, as the findings show aging processes can be detected when you’re still young enough to not have developed certain diseases yet.

The good news: Science has already figured out a few ways to reverse the effects of certain markers of aging. Two good places to start: lowering your stress and eating a diet high in plant foods. Plus, you can nix the lifestyle factors we already know accelerate aging, like these 10 Everyday Things That Age You. We can't guarantee they'll help you live forever, but adopting a healthy habit or two (or ditching the bad ones) certainly can't hurt!

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