Biological clock is ticking – do we really want to know?

A biological clock that provides vital clues about how long a person could live for has been uncovered for the first time.

By studying chemical changes to DNA that take place over a lifetime, scientists from the University of Edinburgh believe that can help them predict an individual’s age.

The team, working with researchers in Australia and the US, compared the actual ages of individual with their predicted biological clock age and saw a pattern emerge: people whose biological age was greater than their true age were more likely to die sooner than those whose biological and actual ages were the same.

The team examined 4 independent studies, which tracked the lives of almost 5,000 older people for up to 14 years. Each person’s biological age was measured from a blood sample at the outset, and participants were followed up throughout the study.

Dr Riccardo Marioni, of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, said the link between a faster-running biological clock and early death held true even after taking other factors such as smoking, diabetes and heart disease, into consideration.

“At present, it is not clear what lifestyle or genetic factors influence a person’s biological age. We have several follow-up projects planned to investigate this in detail,” he added.

Writing in Genome Biology, the team describe how they measured each person’s biological age by studying methylation, a chemical modification to DNA.

The modification does not alter the DNA sequence, but plays an important role in biological processes and can influence how genes are turned off and on. Methylation changes can affect many genes and occur throughout a person’s life.

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