Aging Clocks May Unravel the Secrets of Longevity

Epigenetic aging clocks can help predict age-related health problems by studying the underlying causes of aging and testing how they respond to epigenetic factors such as diet, exercise, and environmental exposures. 
Aging Clocks May Unravel the Secrets of Longevity
Irina Antonova

Most people want to live a longer life—and live it in good health. While genetics play a role in health and longevity, our lifestyle and environment have a major influence on what genes get turned on or off, a process known as epigenetics.

Lengthening healthy life expectancy is now possible with diagnostic and therapeutic tools to show us how to slow down or even turn back our biological clocks by influencing what genes are activated—and which ones stay dormant.

Digital models have been created to predict age-related health problems by studying the underlying causes of aging and testing how they respond to factors that shift our epigenetics, such as diet, exercise, and environmental exposures. These digital models are known as epigenetic aging clocks and they aim to simulate the epigenetic clock inside each person that influences their aging process.

Epigenetic Aging Clocks

The epigenetic clock is used to quantify the aging processes and measure biological age and the pace of aging.

There have been dozens of aging clocks developed over the past 10 years. These clocks have used almost every type of biophysiological data that changes with age, and they utilize machine learning to build a model to predict chronological age.

Epigenetic clocks have been developed based on various tissues and cell types, including blood, saliva, and even specific organs. These clocks can provide a measure of biological aging that can be distinct from chronological age. In other words, they can distinguish between how old a person is in years, and how old they are in terms of physiological processes that keep the body alive and well. This distinction is why some people look younger than their years—and live longer—that others.

In some cases, the difference between biological age and chronological age, known as age acceleration, has been associated with various health conditions and diseases.
Biological markers are used to estimate an individual's biological age based on changes in the epigenome, which refers to chemical modifications of DNA and associated proteins that can influence gene expression. The tests mainly involve the measurement of DNA methylation, as this can show the biological age of a person.

DNA methylation, a mechanism used by cells to control gene expression, is a type of epigenetic modification that is often used as a basis for developing these clocks.

The DNA methylation patterns across the genome change as a person ages, and epigenetic clocks use these patterns to predict an individual's biological age, which may or may not correspond to their chronological age. By comparing the methylation status of specific sites on the DNA, researchers have developed algorithms that can estimate biological age.

Recent Review of Epigenetic Aging Factors

A recent review published in Ageing Research Reviews examined the latest technological developments in the epigenetic aging clock, including using DNA methylation patterns to predict biological age, and practical interventions to slow down or reverse the aging process.

Researchers found specific underlying mechanisms that contribute to biological aging, with important implications for longevity for those willing to modify their lifestyle.

Since aging is a systemic process that has an impact on all levels of our biological systems—our organs, tissues, cells, and their respective molecular components—researchers assessed different factors and their impact on epigenetic age.

Key Findings

  • Alcohol: Binge drinking increases epigenetic age by 1.38 years in young adults, while each day of binge drinking contributes 0.15 years.
  • Smoking: Increases the age of human respiratory organs by four to five years.
  • Calorie Restriction: Improves survival rate, with a 30 percent reduction in late-life mortality. A reduction in caloric intake by 25 percent for a period of two years reduces the pace of aging by 2 to 3 percent.
  • Mediterranean Diet: After one year of an elderly-tailored diet, participants reduced their epigenetic age by 0.58 years. A healthy diet decreases the risk of cardiometabolic disease, cancer, and death.
  • Curcumin: This key substance in the spice turmeric was shown to reduce tumor growth via the inhibition of telomerase (an enzyme related to aging) activity in tumor cells.
  • Obesity: Increasing BMI by 10 units increased epigenetic age by one to three years.
  • Psychological Stress: Lowers telomerase activity and increases age acceleration.
  • Meditation: Reduces the pace of aging in all age groups and each year of practice reduced the epigenetic age by 0.24 years in long-term meditators older than 52 years.
The scientists noted that the research now being done can provide important insights for future health care approaches.

“Although the exact magnitude of the effects that different lifestyle components exert on epigenetic aging remains undetermined in most cases, the widespread adoption of aging clocks can bridge this knowledge gap and, ultimately, enable a new mode of healthcare decision-making to fight the problem of global population aging.”

 (PAstudio via Shutterstock)
(PAstudio via Shutterstock)

6 Lifestyle Habits That May Add Years to Your Lifespan 

Here are some practical strategies, based on study findings, that may help slow the biological aging process and influence your own epigenetic clock.

Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity has been shown to have numerous health benefits, including slowing down the aging process.
Exercise can positively impact DNA methylation patterns, influencing genetic expressions that can slow biological aging. Aim for a combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, and flexibility exercises.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can support overall health and potentially slow epigenetic age acceleration.
Some dietary components, such as resveratrol (found in red grapes and berries) and curcumin (found in turmeric), have shown promise in influencing DNA methylation patterns.

Manage Stress

Chronic stress can accelerate the aging process and affect epigenetic mechanisms. Thus it is beneficial to engage in stress-management techniques like mindfulness meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or engaging in hobbies that help you relax and unwind.

Get Enough Sleep

Poor sleep quality and inadequate sleep duration have been associated with accelerated aging. Aim for seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night, and establish a regular sleep routine.

Avoid Toxic Substances

Certain toxic lifestyle factors, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and exposure to environmental toxins, can accelerate the aging process and potentially influence epigenetic clocks. Minimize or eliminate these harmful substances as much as possible from your life.

Nurture Social Connections

Strong social connections and a sense of belonging have been linked to better health outcomes and longevity. That's why you should cultivate meaningful relationships and engage in social activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.

While these strategies may have a positive impact on overall health and potentially slow down the aging process, it's important to note that epigenetic clocks are still an area of active research.

The extent to which these lifestyle factors can directly influence epigenetic clocks is not yet fully understood. It's always a good idea to consult with health care professionals for personalized advice on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and aging gracefully.

More About Epigenetics 

Epigenetics is also the study of how the interaction between our behavior and the environment changes the way our genes work. While epigenetic changes do not alter the sequence of a person's DNA, they can play an important role in whether certain genes are turned on or off.

The term "epigenetics" is derived from the Greek prefix "epi," meaning "above" or "on top of," indicating that epigenetic changes occur on top of the DNA sequence and can affect gene expression without changing the genetic code itself.

Epigenetic modifications involve chemical alterations to DNA and associated proteins, such as DNA methylation. These modifications can act as signals or markers that regulate gene expression and determine whether a gene is active or silenced.

Epigenetic changes can be influenced by a variety of factors, including environmental exposures, lifestyle choices, aging, and disease. They can be reversible and may occur during specific stages of development or in response to environmental stimuli.

These alterations can have significant implications for health and disease. Dysregulation of epigenetic processes can contribute to various conditions, including cancer, neurological disorders, cardiovascular diseases, and metabolic disorders.

Understanding epigenetic mechanisms and their role in gene regulation can provide insights into disease development and potential targets for therapeutic interventions.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the relationship between BMI and epigenetic age.
Irina Antonova holds a M.S. in Genetics (from Bulgaria) and Ph.D. in Biotechnology (from Australia). Throughout her career, Irina worked as a scientist in academia and the industry, as well as teaching at universities. She enjoys learning about the mysteries of mind, body, life, and the universe.