Does Looking Older Impact Life Expectancy?

By October 4th, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Comment

Man's head with question mark for a face

I’ve never been that great at guessing people’s ages. But I didn’t think much about my lack of ability until I met my husband, who seems to be pretty good at it. That’s why I was intrigued to learn about AgeGuess, a citizen science project and online game that challenges players to accurately guess other players’ ages based on their photos.

The researchers behind the game hope the data it collects will shed light on the differences between perceived age (how old we look) and chronological age (our real age). Previous research has suggested that perceived age could be a biomarker—or predictor—of life expectancy.

A Different Kind of Dataset

The game got its start when Dr. Dusan Misevic attended a presentation given by his colleague, Dr. Ulrich Steiner, about the idea of using citizen science to gather data on human aging. The two shared a background in evolutionary systems biology. “I became interested in the project,” says Misevic, “and we spent much time in the following months discussing the idea and looking for a way to implement it. It still took more than a year to then build things up to the creation of a first version of ageguess.org.”

Volunteer participation is critical to the project’s success. “The users are not only providing the guesses,” says Dr. Misevic, “but they also provide the pictures that are guessed upon. Because of that, the volunteers built up both the input side of the project (photos) and the result side (guesses on the photo). This initiates a circle of growth for both sides and a diversity of pictures that we would not be able to gather in a classical scientific study.”

Understanding Aging

The researchers plan to use game data to address a variety of questions about perceived age and aging rate:

  • Are people who look older than their real age more likely to die early?
  • Do all people age at the same rate, or do some age more rapidly than others?
  • Can a person’s rate of aging speed up or slow down due to stress or health problems?
  • Are there trends in aging rate associated with gender or ethnicity?
  • Do people tend to look about as old as their parents did at the same age?
  • Are some groups of people—say, 20-year-old women—better age guessers than others?

“Life expectancy is increasing at a constant rate of about 6 hours per day for the last 150 years,” Dr. Steiner notes. “However, it is important to stress that the goal of AgeGuess is not to ‘cure aging’ and that the project is much closer to basic than applied science. It is most likely to first help scientists who are studying aging by providing them with a new aging dataset and potentially new age biomarkers.“

The project is young and welcomes citizen scientists from around the world. So why not help the pro scientists out? As Steiner says, “Scientists are people too, right?”

Photo: ageguess.org


Norene Griffin is a freelance writer and science enthusiast who regularly blogs about K-12 education, reading, and the neuroscience of learning. She is a passionate self-learner who often starts her investigations in the middle of the story, with the details, and comes back later to the generalizations of beginnings. She earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities from the University of California, San Diego and later studied photography and 3D art at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her musician husband and son and a cat named Mr. Peepers.