We all age in different ways and speeds, and it turns out epigenetic age could in fact be a stronger indicator of cancer risk than 'actual' chronological age
More than your years
Your epigenetic profile changes as the years go by, and although everyone and every cell type is different, there are some clear patterns that emerge with time. These patterns can be measured and compared - allowing you to estimate someone's biological age instead of simply counting how long they've been alive. Many people appear to avoid the ravages of time and likely display a younger epigenetic signature to show for it, while those less fortunate may display an older one.
Measuring epigenetic age
A team at Northwestern University developed a novel algorithm to calculate a person's epigenetic age by measuring methylation levels; including 71 possible markers. These methylation markers are affected by lifestyle differences like diet.
Instead of taking one sample, the scientists collected blood samples from 1999 to 2013. They then analysed the data and formed an Δage value for each individual. Δage accounts for epigenetic and chronological age discrepancies, and those with a negative mismatch were predicted to be at greater risk of cancer.
“About 3–5 years before cancer onset or death, Δage was associated with cancer risks in a dose-responsive manner and a one-year increase in Δage was associated with cancer incidence and mortality. Participants with smaller Δage and decelerated epigenetic aging over time had the lowest risks of cancer incidence and mortality”
A strong marker
The study discovered that every year of epigenetic age above actual age increased cancer likelihood by 6% in the following 3 years and 17% in 5. The data also suggested that even an increase of 6 months hinted at cancer vulnerability, and those unfortunate to have above a 2.2 year increase were at a particularly high risk of dying from cancer.
“Our sensitivity analyses found that the association between Δage and cancer is independent of both telomere length and other comorbidities, suggesting Δage as a specific cancer biomarker as well as the possibility that Δage reflects molecular-level aging or carcinogenic processes that are not captured by telomere measurements”
An early warning sign
The scientists postulated that epigenetic age may be a more reliable indicator of molecular aging than telomere length, which is frequently used as a biomarker today. Because individuals with accelerated epigenetic aging were at greater risk, this test could well become an early warning system in the near future - enabling lifestyle modifications and life-saving vigilance.
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