A groundbreaking new study confirms that people age at different rates. Rejoice, for your chronological age is, in fact, just a number! However, your biological age can reveal a great deal about your general health and the rate at which you are aging.

This study was unique in that it did not focus its aging research on older subjects. Instead, the scientists’ objective was to reveal more about the aging process in younger people, and therefore provide a foundation for devising preventative therapies for age-related diseases.

A cohort of nearly 1,000 participants born in New Zealand in 1972 and 1973 underwent extensive testing at ages 26, 32, and 38. These tests measured 18 different biological markers that each form a piece of the aging puzzle. The ‘health’ of each participant’s pulmonary, periodontal, cardiovascular, renal, hepatic, and immune systems were assessed using these biomarkers. With these results, researchers calculated a biological age for each participant and then compared the changes in these measurements over time, yielding a quantified pace of aging.

The majority of the participants had biological ages similar to their chronological age, but some participants were found to have aged as much as 3 years physiologically over the course of only one calendar year. Furthermore, scientists found that participants with an accelerated rate of aging performed worse on physical and cognitive ability assessments.

The common saying, “you’re as old (or young) as you feel,” also rang true in this study’s results as well. Participants with an older biological age perceived themselves to be in poorer health than their biologically younger peers. And in case you need even more convincing to take better care of yourself, independent observers scored participants with higher biological ages as looking older than their biologically younger peers as well. (Keep in mind that all of the participants were the same age chronologically!)

One of the biggest challenges in assessing aging is that it is essentially caused by all of the cumulative experiences that you have throughout your life. For doctors and scientists, it is nearly impossible to determine whether lifestyle, stress, medical history, or other circumstances are individually responsible for many age-related diseases. Ultimately, it is a combination of all these factors that either ages you prematurely or keeps you healthy and prevents illnesses now and in the future. This is precisely why so many biomarkers were used in the study and why multiple beneficial lifestyle choices typically have a synergistic effect on your overall health.

This study will have significant implications on further research to prevent aging, which will help us not only increase our lifespans, but more importantly, increase our healthspan, or “the years of life lived without disease and disability.” Living longer doesn’t help us much if we are too sick to fully enjoy the extra years we have. Making proactive decisions about your health now can have lasting positive effects.