Friday, December 29, 2006

Feeling your age

What is age? The RealAge website and industry are predicated on the concept that people can in some sense 'be' an age different from their chronological age as a result of health, life choices, medical history, family medical history, and other factors. It is 'the real age of your body, based on how well you've maintained it', your 'biological age' rather than your 'chronological age'. The website takes you through a health and lifestyle quiz. Upon completion of a host of personal questions, you are emailed your 'real age', and can sign up for membership that provides you with things to do to improve (i.e., lower) your 'biological age'.

I'm not normally one to give out my personal information and email address, but as an experiment I have done so not once but twice for the rather detailed RealAge quiz. My answers on both quizzes were identical, with the exception of any information pertaining to my chronic pain and illness over the last year. I was curious about how the site would factor pain into the biological age equation. Having pain often makes me feel my age or older, and I've been told I have the back of a 110-year-old. How would this effect my RealAge, and what would RealAge suggest I do about it?

I am considered a relatively healthy person, knock-on-wood. I have good blood tests. I inherited low blood pressure from my mother, and low cholesterol from my father. I did not inherit any significant diseases or predilections thereof. I am vegetarian and eat mostly organic, whole foods. I have always been relatively thin (except during and after pregnancy!). I exercise when I can. I meditate and practice yoga. I have learned biofeedback and other stress reduction techniques. And now, of course, I hike.

I always find it funny when a doctor comments on my great health, though--yes, apart from the difficultly moving around and performing basic functions I suppose I am doing OK. Certainly, though, the pain has an extraordinary effect on my quality of life and on how old I feel, regardless of how well I live through the pain. Pain causes both direct and indirect stress on my body and in my life. It is pain, and that in itself is stressful. I can meditate, breathe, stretch and push myself through it. I can distract myself from it. But there it is, always waiting to be pushed through and distracted from. And all of that takes energy from of my daily living. More indirectly, and also more tangibly, it takes time and money from me. Time and money spent in doctor's offices, pharmacies, alternative treatment facilities.

The RealAge test is divided into sections, and at three points the questions stop so you can compute your 'age'-so-far and get some encouraging words. My results were the same in both tests at the end of the first stage: a 'real age' of 28.9. No surprise here, since up until this point all the questions related to height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and the like.

In the second stage, my 'real age' was also the same for both tests: 27.7. This was somewhat unexpected, since I was asked during this section to check any conditions I have, and I checked many more conditions in the second, with-pain test than in the first, without pain test (6 and 1, respectively). It wasn't until the third mid-test result that I found a difference: 26.4 years without pain and 29.8 with pain. This is a significant difference, particularly as it was apparently based entirely on the fact that I indicated I have experienced a 'serious illness in the past year' that made me 'feel I might not be able to keep my job'. Apparently, with this I've knocked 3+ years off my life in one blow.

In the final round of questions, before my results were emailed to me, I was quizzed on exercise and diet habits. The only difference between without pain me and with pain me here was that I indicated feeling significant joint pain with exercise.

The final results are about the same as the penultimate results: My 'real age' is 26.3 without pain, and 29.7 with pain. This suggests that the main thing aging me--or subtracting from my 'chronological age' by one year rather than 4.5--is not the daily joint pain, arthritis, back pain, etc., but the brief but serious illness I had nearly one year ago. The summary, in fact, said nothing about my pain per se, and apparently considered the possible stress caused by 'serious illness' to be the 'aging' factor rather than the illness itself.

Certainly the pain and illness I experiences was stressful. It was, basically, a mis-/undiagnosed infection that led to a major flare-up in my pain levels lasting a few months. Since I did not know the cause of the problem for a while, I thought I might have to more or less drop out of life for a while. But I don't remember feeling like a sprite 26-year-old prior to the illness.

My 'personalized' summary and advice suggests I can reduce my age with an increase in folic acid and unsaturated fats. It also advises several changes I could make in my allergy and migraine treatment. The most interest the quiz took in my pain was in asking what medications I take for migraine and arthritis. I was allowed to choose from a list comprised of those relatively new drugs we've all seen advertised on television. It also asked, incidentally, what brand of condom I use.

Allow me to be cynical for a moment: The sponsors of the RealAge site include many of the major drug companies. By narrowing in on conditions that I might take medication for they have a chance to hook me up with a new drug, or, at least, to collect valuable data on my drug use. It is my suspicion that vague chronic pain symptoms are too complex to be factored into the equation, or solved by any of the miracle money-making drugs. For arthritis there is (was?) Celebrex and the like; for vague conditions such as 'back pain' and 'joint pain' there is no analogous cure or snake oil.

One might dismiss the RealAge website as just another 'health' scam. But the RealAge site seems to me to be rather a microcosm of the medical industry as a whole. Like most medical professionals, RealAge has the potential have a positive influence on peoples' lives. It makes many good suggestions about health and lifestyle choices that can improve the quality of your years. And, like most medical professionals, it has found that the tradeoff for good funding is an overemphasis on health problems that can be easily solved, and on those solutions that make the most money for the medical industry. But by overlooking the significant effect that that daily pain, regardless of its nebulous nature, might have on a person, it does a great disservice to those it is meant to serve.

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