23andMe offers free genome scans to 4,500 senior athletes, seeking genetic fountain of youth

A tweet from personal genomics company 23andMe (see screenshot below) sparked my interest:

I knew 23andMe had been successful in recruiting Parkinsons patients as part of its targeted drive, and the 337 unspecified "patients" are the product of their broader recruitment drive for diseased genomes, Research Revolution (which I've dissected in a previous post) - but the athletes were news to me.
A little Google-trawling revealed (see page 15 of this PDF article from Palo Alto Online) that 23andMe offered free genome scans to all of the participants in the currently ongoing Palo Alto Senior Games, a massive sporting event that only permits participants over the age of 50.
Here's a picture of the 23andMe booth at the games, courtesy of the event's official Flickr page:
Giving away 4,500 free genome scans is a pretty heavy investment - at the current retail price of $399 per kit, that's an astonishing $1.8 million worth of testing. What does 23andMe expect in return? From the Palo Alto Online article:
23andme did not target the 2009 Senior Games solely for its numbers, but because the company wants to find the genetic factors for healthy aging, [23andMe spokesman Rajiv] Mahadevan said. What's better than some 12,000 healthy, active athletes all over age 50?

The beautiful thing about this group is that they epitomize healthy living," Mahadevan said.

Basically, 23andMe is looking for the genetic secrets to a healthy, active old age, and they're willing to spend a hefty chunk of money to get it. They haven't simply relied on the attraction of free stuff to attract participants, either - here's their highly targeted advertisement to Games participants, placed strategically below the Palo Alto Online article linked above:
Now, it would be easy to portray this strategy in sinister tones - the evil corporation stealing the genetic secrets of elderly athletes - but it seems to me that 23andMe has been fairly open about their intentions here, and I'm also genuinely intrigued about the potential of this set of individuals as research subjects. Physical activity extending into later life is a powerful protective factor against a multitude of common diseases, and digging into the molecular basis of variation in late-life physical performance could provide some genuinely useful and health-relevant insights.
That's not to say that getting useful results out of this cohort will be easy; but it seems plausible to me that many of the interesting traits that could be mined for this cohort would be determined by common variants (for reasons involving natural selection and post-reproductive traits, which are a topic for another post), and if a reasonable fraction of the 4,500 recruits end up progressing into the research stage that's a decent-sized cohort to draw on.
I've been fairly optimistic about the prospects of 23andMe's participant-driven research approach in the past. If this study is done well - and 23andMe certainly has access to the expertise and resources required to do it well - then we might very well see some intriguing (and publishable) results coming out of this cohort in the next year or so...
Edit 12/08/09: I somehow wrote "skeptical" when I meant precisely the opposite...

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Interestingly enough, there's already a healthy aging project going on here at the Genome Science Centre in Vancouver, although i think the qualifying age was something like 90+ years, here, rather than 50. As far as I know, I think the project has been going on here for a little over 2 years, so 23andme has a bit of catching up to do.

Hey Anthony,

Good point - I think there are a few of these studies going on right now, mostly (as you say) focused on the extreme elderly.

However, the genetic basis of healthy survival into extreme old age may well differ markedly from the genetic basis of physical fitness at earlier ages (say 50-70), so 23andMe isn't necessarily in direct competition with these consortia.

Hi Daniel,

It's true that they're not in direct competition, but I suspect the genes that have the greater impact will be the ones that keeps you alive and in good health till your 90's, rather than your 50's. (=

Anyhow, my point isn't that there shouldn't be competition, but that the project is far from unique - although it seems you already knew that. (Which is exactly why I read your blog in the first place!)

I am by no means a 23andMe detractor, but ascertaining samples through the Senior Games seems a little naïve. I mean, these are self-selecting individuals that actively engage in environmental modifications (e.g. exercising, healthy eating, etc...). Taking a random sample of 90-year-olds is a much better approach for studying the underpinnings of "healthy aging" (whatever that means). The whole thing appears to be a marketing/science hodgepodge, a truly "worst of both worlds" scenario.

It may be lousy hypothesis driven science, but it makes for excellent data mining, and that is probably a more immediate goal. You replicated matched controlled experiment can get much strong statistics if it doesn't have to consider all 550,000 snps. If they tagged all of the senior athlete kits, and just visually compared that to every other sample in the database, some trends would standout. The statisticians would argue about the best methodology, but it shouldn't particularly matter if you just want to find the 10,000 snps worthy of a second round. Thanks to the reduced number of snps, that can be done in a
much smaller group.

I think 23andMe is trying to combat poor reliability on self reported data. They could do a second project and give kits to 4500 people who buy a "senior scooter" before age 50. How much do these two data clouds intersect. The ability to tell 23andMe customers what genetic distance they have from each of these two clouds might also be informative. The data they have gets more valuable as it grows, but well labeled data is a multiplier.

I have a favourite quote I carry in my wallet

"I am in better shape now than when I was 100" - 103 year old Ben Levinson competing in shotput, rock climbing and archery in the World Masters Games

By mrcreosote (not verified) on 12 Aug 2009 #permalink


I hate to disagree with you, but, for $3.6 million, I think that looking at 50-year-old athletes versus 50-year-old scooter drivers is a little risky. There is no doubt that data mining will turn up something; however, my guess is that socioeconomic factors will explain differences in outcome. I mean, these are the Palo Alto, a place with a median home sale price greater than $1 million, Senior Games. The athletes congregate in the AstraZeneca Athlete Village and enjoy entertainment on the Euflexxa Entertainment Stage in front of the Humana Celebration Plaza (seriously). I would say this "study" is primarily a marketing gimmick. Most of the DTC companies believe that their market is the baby boomers since they have money and they want to stay healthy as they age. It would be more interesting to know if it is too late to act on the information in a genetic profile if one receives it at the age of 50.

Matthew, the exact location of the Senior Games is irrelevant. They've been held all over the country at two-year intervals since 1987. I do agree that it is not a random socioeconomic sample, since participants must have the means to travel.

However, it's a unique opportunity to collect information about a distinctive group -- they're not merely healthy, they are functioning at a very high level. Some will set national records for their age group in their sport. Some of the participants are in their 90's, BTW.

By Ann Turner (not verified) on 13 Aug 2009 #permalink

What's so distinctive about senior athletes? We have bundles of them here in Greenwich CT.......

Marketing to old people, plain and simple.

Ann, I wonder if you think the HR bill for healthcare reform is great too?


Steven --

Maybe you don't appreciate what the Senior Games are. They used to be called the Senior Olympics, if that gives you a better flavor. When I said the athletes were functioning at a very high level, I was not exaggerating for effect. If you care to investigate, take a look at the results for some of the T & F events, which I find quite impressive. These are not just seniors who are active for casual enjoyment or basic fitness reasons. They are serious, dedicated, and exceptional athletes who don't want to quit competing just because they are growing older.


As to the leap in your last line to my opinion of the HR bill, your logic (?) baffles me.

By Ann Turner (not verified) on 15 Aug 2009 #permalink

I would like to order the Full Edition Personal Genome Service Kit. Ihad correspondence from the North Carolina Senior Games that this material was available to members.

I had a fractured hip and could not participate this summer in Raleigh. But I am back in the pool now .

I understand that this material is available fot the special price of $350. Is my spouse eligible also?

Please advise. Thank you for your kind attention. Boyd C. Campbell

By Boyd Cleveland… (not verified) on 09 Sep 2009 #permalink

how can be a genet'c foundation be\ it would be super santa

being in good body shape, sexy curves and attractive hot body is everyone wants,

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If they tagged all of the senior athlete kits, and just visually compared that to every other sample in the database, some trends would standout.