Epigenetic age is a new way to measure your biological age. When your biological (epigenetic) age is older than your chronological age, you are at increased risk for getting and dying of cancer.
And the bigger the difference between the two ages, the higher your risk of dying of cancer.
“This could become a new early warning sign of cancer,” says Lifang Hou, who led the study and is chief of cancer epidemiology and prevention in preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“The discrepancy between the two ages appears to be a promising tool that could be used to develop an early detection blood test for cancer,” adds Hou.
A person’s epigenetic age is calculated based on an algorithm measuring 71 blood DNA methylation markers that could be modified by a person’s environment, including environmental chemicals, obesity, exercise, and diet. This test is not commercially available but is currently being studied by academic researchers.
“People who are healthy have a very small difference between their epigenetic/biological age and chronological age,” Hou says. “People who develop cancer have a large difference and people who die from cancer have a difference even larger than that. Our evidence showed a clear trend.”
In DNA methylation, a cluster of molecules attaches to a gene and makes the gene more or less receptive to biochemical signals from the body. The gene itself—your DNA code—does not change.
This is the first study to link the discrepancy between epigenetic age and chronological age with both cancer development and cancer death using multiple blood samples collected over time. The multiple samples, which showed changing epigenetic age, allowed for more precise measurements of epigenetic age and its relationship to cancer risk. Other studies have looked at blood samples collected only at a single time point.
The study, published in EBioMedicine, was a longitudinal design with multiple blood samples collected from 1999 to 2013. Scientists used 834 blood samples collected from 442 participants who were free of cancer at the time of the blood draw.
For each one-year increase in the discrepancy between chronological and epigenetic ages, there was a 6 percent increased risk of getting cancer within three years and a 17 percent increased risk of cancer death within five years. Those who will develop cancer have an epigenetic age about six months older than their chronological age; those who will die of cancer are about 2.2 years older, the study shows.
“Our results suggest future researchers should focus on the epigenetic-chronological age discrepancy for its potential to show a big picture snapshot of human health and disease at a molecular level,” says Yinan Zheng, a predoctoral fellow at Feinberg and a coauthor of the study.
The team is studying whether individuals can lower their epigenetic age through lifestyle improvements such as increasing exercise and having a healthier diet, says Brian Joyce, co-first author and predoctoral fellow at Feinberg.
The Epidemiology Research and Information Center and US Department of Veterans Affairs helped support the research.