A friend tells me that every few years she meets up with 50 or so of her school friends and swaps stories. Sadly, she notes, there are fewer folks to talk with at each reunion, but there’s something else she finds intriguing about these get-togethers.
All of the attendees at these shindigs are basically the same age, but their appearance and health status are all over the board.
Sure, there are some who’ve clearly had “some work done,” yet that can’t fully explain how many of her peers seem to be aging so much faster than others.
It turns out that she’s not alone in her curiosity about this paradox of aging. The latest research shows each of us has an “aging pace” that scientists believe can reveal much about our overall health and longevity.
Researcher Daniel Belsky, PhD, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has long been intrigued by the idea of aging pace.
In 2015, Dr. Belsky authored a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.1
He led a team of scientists who used a panel of 18 measures to evaluate 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds with an eye to determining how quickly they were aging.
These measures included blood pressure, lung function, body mass index, cholesterol, inflammation and characteristics of their DNA. Based on these results, researchers calculated the biological age for each volunteer.
When It Comes to Aging, Looks Do Matter
It turns out these markers were a good indicator of physiological age, and they were also good markers of a person’s age in years. Plus, they were quite similar to the biological effects of aging found in older people.
Unlike previous aging research, Dr. Belsky focused on younger populations. Interestingly, he found that the rate of biological aging was already highly variable in young adults who had not yet developed chronic disease.
Dubbed the “Pace of Aging,” the 2015 research revealed that by taking all of these factors into account, we can conclude that people of all ages who appear visibly older are generally biologically older as well when you look below the surface. And vice versa, those who appear younger than their years are generally biologically younger as well.
But Dr. Belsky went one step further…
He’s using his research findings to give scientists the ability to test treatments that might slow aging. This is an exciting new focus in medical research and could be a novel approach to preventing a number of chronic diseases.
For example, Dr. Belsky’s team of researchers developed a blood test that could be given at the start and end of a randomized controlled trial to determine if a given treatment had slowed participants’ pace of aging.
Blood Test Reveals Pace of Aging
Dr. Belsky’s team focused on DNA samples derived from white blood cells. Then they analyzed chemical tags on the DNA called methylation marks. DNA methylation marks change as we age, with some marks being added and others lost.
DNA methylation is an epigenetic process, which means it can change the way genes are expressed. Epigenetics is the study of environmental mechanisms – influences from outside the DNA — that switch genes on and off. These days, epigenetic factors are more and more frequently cited for their effects on the development of disease.2
Previous studies tried to measure aging by examining the DNA methylation differences between people of different chronological ages.
Dr. Belsky says there was one important limitation of this earlier approach.
“Individuals born in different years have grown up under different historical conditions, with a possibility of more exposure to childhood diseases, tobacco smoke, airborne lead, and less exposure to antibiotics and other medications, as well as lower quality nutrition, all of which affect DNA methylation,” Dr. Belsky explains.
He said an alternative approach is to study individuals who were all born the same year. Then researchers find methylation patterns that differentiate those who have been aging biologically faster or slower than their same-age peers.
Measure Methylation, Measure Pace of Aging
Knowing that this was just one of many future studies, the scientists came up with a blood-DNA-methylation measure that is sensitive to variations in biological aging among those born in the same year.
The measurement tool was based on an algorithm named “DunedinPoAm” for Dunedin (P)ace (o)f (A)ging in (m)ethylation.
According to the study, the DunedinPoAm offers a “unique measurement for intervention trials and natural experiment studies investigating how the rate of aging may be changed by behavioral or drug therapy, or by changes to the environment.”
Why is this study significant?
It has the potential to assist in the advancement of research into age-related chronic diseases and help sort out what specific behaviors can slow aging.
We already know that healthy lifestyle habits have a huge impact on the pace of aging, but I’m eager to learn more about how specific healthy lifestyle habits affect different disease processes, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease and more.
I have no doubt important new studies are on the horizon using Dr. Belsky’s findings, and I hope that results will come sooner rather than later. I’ll be watching closely and will report back.