Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Your "Real Age" Accurate?

March 30, 2009 9:01 pm

Is Your "Real Age" Accurate?

I got to see this costume up close! My fave part: the piano, also filled with bubbles. And her playing said piano with her clear plastic stripper stiletto. Oh yeah, the singing was fab too.

For those of you who think I act like a teenager (this 30-year-old mom recently saw Lady Gaga in concert - a show otherwise filled with superfan teen girls and drag queens), apparently I have good reason. According to this test, I’m actually only 18. If you, like me, have been on the Internet since Al Gore invented it, then I’m sure you recognize the grandaddy of online quizzes. Basically, you answer 150 lifestyle questions and the test calculates your “real” biological age by adding years for things like smoking and sleep debt while subtracting years for healthy habits like flossing and taking a multi. The Real Age test is so ubiquitous as to be a staple on Oprah. And without even shoddily crafting a pseudomemoir!

At first I will admit I was thrilled with my results. See? That healthy living obsession is paying off in the form of high-kicking organs and a mind that could battle wits against a Sicillian and win (although not in a land war in Asia.) But then the doubt started to creep in. I fussed around with my results and discovered something interesting: the test puts an immense, some might say disproportionate, emphasis on certain supplements. Especially confusing to me was the pro vitamin E stance, considering all the recent research about its harmful effects. A supplement that reportedly causes a 15% increase in early death actually added years to my life according to the quiz. Are they just operating off of old research? After all, Vitamin E used to be the wonder supplement before Vitamin D threw it off the bridge with cement shoes. Or, is something more nefarious going on?

It turns out that I am not the only person to question the validity and thereby the recommendations of The Real Age quiz. The New York Times recently ran a story about the Quiz and came to an interesting conclusion: the test is sponsored by drug manufacturers who glean information from the surveys. Stephanie Clifford writes,

While few people would fill out a detailed questionnaire about their health and hand it over to a drug company looking for suggestions for new medications, that is essentially what RealAge is doing.

RealAge allows drug companies to send e-mail messages based on those test results. It acts as a clearinghouse for drug companies, including Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, allowing them to use almost any combination of answers from the test to find people to market to, including whether someone is taking antidepressants, how sexually active they are and even if their marriage is happy.

In addition, The Real Age test, backed by Oprah’s Dr. Mehmet Oz, has branched out into a full online community with mailing lists, chat rooms and even recipes. Boasting a membership of over 27 million, they’ve got a lot of eyeballs. So not only is the test assigning an arbitrary number based on dubious health principles but they’re also creating one of the largest online drug marketing databases in the world.

Then what’s a health-and-quiz-loving girl to do? Tara Parker-Pope, also of the New York Times, suggests the Your Disease Risk Quiz. Their website isn’t nearly as sexy nor will it give the you succinct and flattering satisfaction of a “real age” number but it will tell you which of your lifestyle factors make you more vulnerable to certain diseases. In addition to helpful tips more firmly rooted in research, the quiz (multiple disease-specific quizzes actually) also has the added benefit of not requiring registration nor storing any of your information. It is for your eyes only, to do with what you wish. (Iocaine powder tolerance, optional.)

Have you taken The Real Age Quiz? Did it make you younger or older? Did you find the quiz motivated you to make healthy changes in your life? Or are you suspicious of anything that ties up in such a neat little package? Anyone else secretly love A Million Little Pieces? (Shhhh….)