Some people age so badly their bodies are decades older than the number of candles on their birthday cake.
In one example, researchers discovered the biological age of a 66-year-old was an astounding 114.
But it can work the other way too. One person aged 59 was discovered to have the body of a 23-year-old. The good news is, where you fall in the biological age spectrum largely comes down to something you can control – epigenetics.
We Can Improve Gene Expression
Some people believe there’s nothing they can do regarding their future health and life expectancy because of inherited genes.
True, the genes we inherit put us at a higher risk of certain health problems, but our DNA needn’t be our destiny; we do have some power to make a difference.
Genes contain a plethora of information that provides the body with operating instructions, but non-genetic factors also influence the expression of genes, often characterized as “turning genes on or off.” The study of this process is called epigenetics.
And the good news is that although we can’t control some of these external factors, many are under our control. Taking the right action allows us to alter gene expression for the better to reduce the risk of disease and extend healthy lifespan.
In February, research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Seattle, demonstrating the link between epigenetics and aging.
Social Factors Affect Aging
Epigenetic changes that accumulate over time can be read like a clock to determine how quickly a person is aging.
With this in mind, researchers at the University of Southern California drew blood from more than 4000 people aged 57 and over to measure changes to DNA at different points on the genetic code.
Their aim in particular was to find influences affecting a person’s life that speed up or slow down aging. Dr. Eileen Crimmins, Professor of Gerontology, explained, “We think that adverse social experiences can change your epigenetic profile in ways that may subsequently influence your health adversely.
“We have lots of evidence that these social factors [e.g education, sexual practices, racial or ethnic customs, socioeconomic status, life traumas, mental health] are linked across the board to the major health outcomes associated with age, and we’re attempting to try to understand the biology of how social factors affect aging outcomes.”
Some of the research examined epigenetic mechanisms through which adversity in childhood gets “under the skin” to affect psychological processes and health outcomes in adult life.
Obesity – The Biggest Driver of Aging
In spite of the focus on social factors, what Dr. Crimmins and her team discovered was that obesity was the biggest driver of biological aging, speeding it up by up to 18 months. (Of course, social factors drive obesity in some people).
Psychological distress speeded things up another four months. Poor childhood health also accelerated the aging process. On the other hand, being female slowed aging by up to two years.
But some people showed extreme variations between biological and chronological age, ranging from 36 years younger to 48 years older than their calendar age would indicate.
This was the first study in an older population to look at epigenetic mechanisms, and it’s clear there’s much more to discover as to why they can impact people in such strikingly different ways. Also, at issue is whether it may be possible through counseling or other measures to counter the negative impact of psychological traumas and social factors on biological age.
Fortunately, there are many factors we do have some control over to improve gene expression.
These include improving the diet, increasing physical activity, giving up smoking and heavy drinking, lowering exposure to environmental pollutants, and reducing chronic stress.
And for those with a high body mass index, Dr. Crimmins offers some encouragement, “…if obesity raises epigenetic age, losing weight may lower it.”