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WSJ story wisely includes lots of caveats on mail-order telomere tests

Rating

3 Star

Mail-Order Tests Check Cells for Signs of Early Aging

Our Review Summary

telomere testThis story reports on mail-order blood tests that purport to determine a person’s “cellular age” by measuring the length of telomeres, the DNA caps at the ends of chromosomes that protect against deterioration and fusion with neighboring chromosomes.

The news story does a good job of listing the many limitations of this test—it’s a very strong point of the story. Yet, it draws readers in at the start with fear-mongering and fails to mention obvious alternatives of monitoring your weight and fitness level and seeing a doctor for regular check-ups. Moreover it’s not clear there’s any real news here, since telomere testing has been around in some form for years.

 

Why This Matters

There’s no evidence that measuring telomere length can be useful in guiding health decisions. Yet there are plenty of companies willing to sell consumers on the idea anyway while conveying a bogus message that the normal aging process constitutes a disease. Stories like this one are a mixed bag: Even if they spell out the limitations, they give publicity to an unproven product.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story mentions these tests are available for $89, and that a company also charges $395 to get the panel of all 92 telomeres.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story provides some quantification (via a discussion of a prostate cancer study) but overall clearly establishes that there is a lack of benefit.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story could have pointed out that because the significance of telomere length is unclear, people who take the test may either get a false sense of a security from learning they compare favorably to the general population or experience unnecessary anxiety if they get a lower-than-average result.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The story very wisely included this paragraph:

“Critics say the few controlled trials that show people can lengthen their telomeres are very small and the large observational studies that make up the bulk of the scientific literature on telomeres don’t demonstrate cause and effect.”

We also learn that “some top telomere scientists say such information amounts to little more than high-tech palm reading, in part because telomere length varies so widely in the general population that it isn’t clear what length is problematic.”

It also states that telomere length can’t tell you how long you’ll live, that there’s little research on whether telomeres can be lengthened with healthy habits, and that most people “never reach the end of their telomeres, and some scientists say they have to be extremely short before they contribute to disease.”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

We wish some of the skepticism expressed in the body of this piece had made it to the top. Instead, readers are drawn in with scary statements along with exaggerations of the test’s capabilities. The headline states the tests “check for signs of early aging,” as if aging were a disease, and that companies claim the tests “can signal disease risk and a need to take corrective measures.” The first paragraph continues the alarming tone, stating that “your cells might be aging faster than you are.”

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

This story wins points for reaching out to multiple independent experts, including a Nobel Prize winner who helped discover how telomeres protect chromosomes.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Most people over the age of 50 would be vastly better off following prudent health advice and visiting their doctor to discuss whether they should to be screened for specific treatable conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, breast cancer, high cholesterol, hypothyroidism or colorectal cancer, to name a few. The story doesn’t mention that.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story mentions that these tests are available through the mail from a number of companies.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

It’s misleading to call these “new tests.” Commercial telomere testing is dates back at least to 2005, according to one report.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory

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