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Over a decade ago, I was watching a special on PBS on aging. One of the vignettes was of a Dr. Roizen who was then a physician at the Cleveland Clinic. He had started a movement called the RealAge movement where people took a questionnaire regarding everything from friendship to smoking and in the end, they were given their statistical (based on rigorous scientific research) or ‘real’ age based not on the time they have been on earth rather the way they have been living on earth. I remember really loving this idea. It shifted chronological age from a dreaded march to less sexiness, less vitality, and less productivity to a number with very little scientific meaning as far as sexiness, vitality, and productivity goes. Depending on the choices you make, you may be 45 according to your birth certificate but in actual bodily health terms not a day over 32. Likewise, you may think you are still very young at 25 but according to your lifestyle your body might actually be closer to 35. We have all sorts of phrases meant to boost us as we see the numbers rise: age is just a number and you are only as old as you feel; however, for me they always seemed like lame platitudes people say to comfort themselves. The RealAge concept actually harnessed science and statistical mathematics to turn those relatively empty sayings into factual realities. Age really is just a number (if you calculate the unhealthy and beneficial habits you have), and you are only as old as you feel (you may be 50 on paper but because of your lifestyle you will feel closer to 40).
There is a great article from the University of Chicago written back in 1999 that beautifully lays out the organic nature of the RealAge movement (Medical data shows Real Age by John Easton, March 5, 1999, chronicle.uchicago.edu). It was an interview with the founder Dr. Michal Roizen. In the article, Dr. Roizen explains how it seemed nearly impossible to get his patients to follow his instructions. “‘In his terms, he could not assess the ‘net present value’ of drugs designed not to cure disease but to prevent [a heart attack or stroke] 10 years from now. So we did some quick calculations and decided that taking his medicine made him the equivalent of 4 years younger. Ever since he has taken them religiously.’” His patient then returned the favor and helped solidify what Dr. Roizen was starting to discover regarding how to better illustrate the true benefits of following his orders. “In exchange, the banker steered Roizen to the work of Chicago economist Milton Friedman who won the 1976 Novel Prize, in part for his research on how investors discount uncertain future gains. Friedman found that without a straight forward way to calculate the worth of benefits that would not be received for years, investors tended to under value them. Benefits that were more than three years away were also seen as worthless.”
Benefits that were more than three years away were also seen as worthless... What a marvelous human insight and how perfectly it explains that even the smartest, sanest people in the world still make terrible health decisions. Dr. Roizen saw a way to lay out in real, mathematical terms with an extremely emotional score (our real age) to help us really see how our lifestyle choices are affecting us—even though we may not notice the outcome for years. Exercising every day or making time to develop meaningful friendships may not seem like that big of deal in the short term, but in the long term they can have a profound effect on not only your longevity but more importantly how your ‘old age’ feels. Very few people want to live a long time if it means physical and emotional pain—the real point is to enjoy MORE VITAL years. Not all eighty-year olds are alike.
Besides getting people to really see in a clear way how their health decisions are affecting them, Dr. Roizen saw another awesome benefit from calculating people’s ‘real age.’ Yes, it is jarring to hear that while you are 41 according to your driver’s license, according to the RealAge test you are hovering around 50. However, with a few tweaks here and there, you can re-take the test in a year, and for the first time ever, you can actually be a few years YOUNGER than you were on your last birthday. For me personally, that is a super optimistic way to approach age, your health, and self-improvement. And what’s funny is that there are a lot of things in the test that are unexpected like love, sex, laughter, and friendship. Those are incredibly important to longevity and health. So maybe you are so-so with diet, but you find taking more time for exercise and laughter is not so hard. Perfect, you are on your way. Maybe try growing younger a few years every year?
Note: RealAge is now part of a company called Sharecare. It was founded by Dr. Roizen, so it is still connected to the creator of the RealAge concept. I have neither negative nor positive things to say about the Sharecare company. However, the RealAge test is available for free and is a great way to see statistically where your ‘real age’ currently falls. I personally love the test because you can retake the test in a year or two and see in a very cool way how much your improvements have impacted you. Wouldn’t it be fun to go from 45 to 38 in just a few years?
You can find and take the RealAge test here.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.