- Walter Novak
- Will Marts is 25, but his "real" age is 32.
So the 28-year-old was surprised by the results of a test that revealed she had the body of a 34-year-old.
"It's kind of depressing," Buza says. "I already feel like an old maid; now I feel even worse."
Buza is one of more than 16 million who have taken the RealAge test, the brainchild of Dr. Michael Roizen, head of the Cleveland Clinic anesthesiology department. The test has made the doctor a best-selling author, international celebrity, and official Friend of Oprah.
The inspiration for his success arrived 12 years ago, when Roizen was treating a heart patient who was reluctant to quit smoking. Groping for a way to make the danger more real, Roizen surveyed available medical statistics and estimated how old the 49-year-old patient really was: 57.
That cinched it. The smoker stubbed out his last cigarette.
Next, Roizen decided to try his method on a larger scale. With private funding, he and a team of doctors created a questionnaire designed to determine a person's true age. After evaluating more than 35,000 studies, they boiled the factors down to 150 questions, which take about 20 minutes to answer.
The questionnaire begins by asking you basic medical questions about your age, heart rate and blood pressure. It moves on to questions about daily lifestyle habits -- everything from your exercise habits to how often you have sex. When you're done, a computer runs the responses through a complicated algorithm and spits out your score -- along with suggestions on how to improve it.
It's a nifty idea, and the media was quick to pick up on it. Roizen's biggest fan is Oprah Winfrey; the doctor has appeared on her show five times. They've discussed a wide range of topics, from the health benefits of marriage to -- in one of daytime TV's most cringe-inducing moments -- the shape and sound of Oprah's stools.
Roizen's humble test has since become the foundation of a massive multimedia company. Along with Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon at Columbia University, Roizen has published five best-selling books, including RealAge: Are You as Young as You Can Be? And You: The Owner's Manual -- which sold more than a million copies and unseated the Harry Potter books as No. 1 on the Amazon.com best-sellers list. The privately held company now earns upward of $11 million annually, according to recent media reports.
It would seem a small price to pay for youth. Roizen claims that if you follow his advice, you can cut your chance of an early death by 90 percent. And many of the lifestyle changes are painless: Who wouldn't want to drink a glass of red wine every day to decrease his age by 1.9 years? Or eat an ounce of chocolate to drop 1.2 years?
Which is exactly why some doctors disagree with Roizen's bold claims.
"The suggestions [these tests give] -- like eating a good diet and being physically active -- do help delay many diseases, but in reality, the clock still ticks," says Kerry J. Stewart, the director of clinical research and exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. "An 80-year-old is not going to suddenly become a 40-year-old, though their quality of life may become better."
Critics point to the seeming arbitrariness of the test's conclusions: Everyone knows that flossing is good for you, but why does it grant you exactly 6.4 years? And why does frequent, monogamous sex make you 6.2 years younger, no matter what your original age is?
"I'd be concerned about taking these numbers literally -- or even as a rough guide," says Steve Woloshin, a doctor and senior researcher at the VA Outcomes Group, which evaluates medical research.
Answers to these questions aren't forthcoming from Roizen or RealAge. The doctor didn't return numerous phones calls from Scene. The company won't reveal how its test works, although it does say that an expert outside panel evaluates the research that goes into calculating the RealAge matrix.
This fuels skepticism, especially since some of RealAge's suggestions defy conventional medical wisdom.
The VA's Woloshin says that when he took the test, it told him to eat 10 tablespoons of tomato sauce each week. He's surveyed the available medical research and found no studies to support that suggestion.
"Some of their recommendations are at odds with what we know," Woloshin states.
And funny things happen when you paint with such a broad brush. Ruth Bohlken, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University, recalls giving a similar test to an 82-year-old patient. Imagine her surprise when the results revealed that the patient should have died two years ago.
"You've got to take these results with a grain of salt," Bohlken says.
Still, it hasn't slowed the stream of new converts. On a recent Saturday at Bally Total Fitness in Beachwood, throngs of people lined up to take the test.
Will Marts, a 25-year-old personal trainer and former college hockey player, was surprised to learn that his "real" age was 32.
But he's not taking it lying down. He vows to redouble his efforts at the gym and cut back on drinking -- as soon as he recovers from his friend's bachelor party.
"That may age me another 10 years," he moans.