As the world's population ages, understanding the factors that contribute to healthy aging becomes increasingly important. One area of research that has garnered attention is the study of epigenetic age acceleration (EAA). EAA refers to the difference between a person's biological age, as measured by specific changes in their DNA, and their chronological age. This difference can provide insight into a person's overall health and the likelihood of developing age-related diseases. A recent study has examined the association between EAA and healthy longevity among older women, making it the first of its kind to explore this relationship.
The study involved 1,813 women aged 70 years and above, who were part of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI). The WHI is a long-term study that began in 1993, aiming to identify strategies to prevent heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast and colorectal cancer among postmenopausal women. The participants were divided into three groups based on their health status: those who experienced healthy longevity (survived to age 90 with intact mobility and cognitive functioning), those who survived to age 90 without intact mobility or cognitive functioning, and those who did not survive to age 90.
Epigenetic Age Measurement
EAA was measured using four established epigenetic clocks, which estimate biological age based on DNA methylation levels at specific sites in the genome. These clocks include the Horvath pantissue, Hannum, Pheno, and Grim clocks. DNA methylation is an essential epigenetic mechanism involved in gene expression and splicing, and these clocks can provide valuable insights into a person's biological age and health.
The study found that increased EAA, as measured by all four clocks, was associated with lower odds of survival to age 90 with intact mobility. The results were similar when including intact cognitive functioning, although only 29 women were reclassified from the healthy longevity group to the group that survived to age 90 without intact mobility and cognitive functioning.
Interestingly, the study also revealed that women who experienced healthy longevity were more likely to be White and not of Hispanic origin, college graduates, non-smokers, and have a body mass index (BMI) in the reference or overweight range. They were also more likely to walk regularly, consume moderate amounts of alcohol, and have fewer major chronic conditions compared to women in the other two groups.
Comparison to Previous Studies
Few studies have examined the link between EAA and healthy longevity. One small study conducted among 48 long-lived Nicoyans and 47 non-Nicoyans from Costa Rica found no significant differences in EAA between the two groups. However, the small sample size limited the study's power to detect more modest differences.
Other studies have investigated the associations between EAA and physical and cognitive functioning among older adults but did not specifically focus on long-lived individuals. These studies generally found associations between higher EAA and increased risk of physical frailty, reduced grip strength, and cognitive decline.
Strengths and Limitations
This study has several strengths, such as its large and racially diverse sample of older women and detailed longitudinal data on lifestyle and health history factors. Additionally, the use of multiple epigenetic clocks provides a more comprehensive understanding of EAA's association with healthy longevity.
However, there are some limitations to the study. It only included women, and further research should explore whether the findings apply to men and other racial and ethnic groups. Additionally, the study population did not have enough women who experienced cognitive decline without mobility loss to explore the relationship between EAA and cognitive function independently.
Conclusions and Future Directions
The findings of this study suggest that EAA may be a valid biomarker associated with healthy longevity among older women. These results indicate that EAA could be used for risk stratification and estimation of future survival with intact mobility and cognitive functioning within populations.
Considering the study's limitations, future research should seek to replicate these findings in more diverse populations, including both men and women, and explore the relationship between EAA and cognitive function independently. Moreover, investigating the potential for public health interventions to reduce EAA and associated disease burden while increasing longevity could prove valuable.
Implications for Public Health
Understanding the role of EAA in healthy aging has significant implications for public health. Identifying individuals at risk of accelerated aging and age-related diseases could enable targeted interventions to improve overall health and quality of life in older adults. These interventions may include promoting healthy lifestyles, such as regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and moderate alcohol consumption, which were found to be more common among women with healthy longevity in this study.
Moreover, understanding the biological processes underlying EAA may lead to the development of novel therapies to slow down or reverse age-related changes in the genome. This could potentially extend not only the length but also the quality of life for older adults, allowing them to maintain their mobility and cognitive functioning for longer.
In conclusion, this study represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the relationship between epigenetic age acceleration and healthy longevity in older women. While further research is needed to confirm and expand upon these findings, the study provides valuable insights into the potential use of EAA as a biomarker for aging and the development of targeted interventions to promote healthy aging.
1. Jain P, Binder AM, Chen B, et al. Analysis of Epigenetic Age Acceleration and Healthy Longevity Among Older US Women. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(7):e2223285. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.23285