How 3-D Facial Scans Might Uncover Hidden Signs of Aging

PHOTO: Doctors are using 3-D facial imaging to discover your "real age."Cell Research Journal/ Jing-Dong J Han/Weiyang Che
Doctors are using 3-D facial imaging to discover your "real age."

Researchers are hoping 3-D scans can shed new light on signs of aging.

Researchers from the Fudan University in Shanghai are investigating if 3-D scans can find hidden signs of aging and potentially develop an app that will allow doctors to identify patients at high risk for deadly health complications as they grow old.

In a new study published in Cell Research Journal, the team scanned the faces of 300 people to create a “comprehensive map” of the human face while it ages. The "map" consisted of a series of male and female faces during five different age groups between 17 to 77.

Researchers then combed through 3-D images of participants to identify slow agers or people who look younger than their age, well-predicted agers or people who look their age, and fast agers, or people who look older than their years.

The team’s goal is to find a way for doctors to find people with “older” faces and identify if they’re also at higher risk for complications from poor health.

Researchers also looked at biomarkers connected to age in the blood including cholesterol and albumin to see if those signs corresponded with the “age” of the person’s face. Researchers found some correlation, but it did not correspond as high as other proven biomarkers that help researchers identify age.

However with more study and work, the team hopes to fine tune their algorithm so that health officials can easily find trouble signs just by looking at a person’s face.

"We will package our predictor into a downloadable app, and doctors will be able to use it provided they can upload a 3-D image of their patient into it," Jing-Dong Han of Shanghai Institutes of Biological Sciences told the New Scientist website.

Steve Horvath, a biostatistician and bioinformatician at University of California Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine, has done multiple studies identifying biomarkers for the aging process by looking at the DNA of blood and tissues.

“I love the idea. I think it’s very intuitive,” Horvath told ABC News of the study. “Most people are very good at judging another person’s age just by looking at their face. [This study] makes it more rigorous by using pattern recognition algorithm.”

Horvath, however, says the study is just a very early step and needs to be proven in follow-up studies. Horvath wants to see an algorithm developed that would be applicable to multiple ethnicities and not just people of Chinese descent.

“I’m interested to relate our blood-based biomarkers to their aging biomarkers,” said Horvath. “I would love to see if someone has the blood older than expected and their facial features are also older.”

Horvath said he and other researchers are hoping that by finding aging markers in blood, tissue and now face scans, doctors will be able to find patients at high risk for certain health complications and treat them proactively.