Detailed information about epigenetics and the epiAge test
Tracking the Epigenetic Clock:
from Biological Fate to Self-Determined Management
Chronological versus Biological
"Gee, 45? I thought you were 38, tops!" Past a certain age, compliments like this are most welcome. Whether sincere perception or pure flattery, this type of statement points to a discrepancy we instinctively sense – namely, that our chronological age does not always correlate with the biological. Often, when it comes to our own selves, we are rather short-sighted, but when a close friend suddenly looks grey and withered after losing their job, experiencing illness or grief, it becomes very apparent.
So, what is Ageing?
Ageing is a complex process that is steered by various factors, many of which remain to be discovered. However, a rough distinction can be drawn between two central mechanisms that obviously intertwine. On the one hand, the body seems to suffer damage on various biological levels in the course of its lifespan (e.g., DNA instability, an accumulation of waste products or the production of free radicals through mitochondrial activity), which, at some point, can no longerbe repaired. On the other hand, ageing – similarly to early childhood development – seems to be much more centrally programmed and systemically controlled (e.g., cellular senescence or DNA methylation). The latter mechanism may be the main explanation for the seemingly insurmountable boundary of human life, i.e., the so-called Hayflick limit, which points to a clear restriction of potential cell divisions, hence to a form of programmed mortality.
But let us go back to our initial everyday examples: the flattering compliment and the sudden ageing of a close friend, for both point to important aspects when it comes to regaining some control over our age. First, there are factors we seem to have little influence upon. When we meet the relatives of a very young-looking person, we may realise that this youthful appearance is probably hereditary, at least in one branch of the family and especially if the person in question pays little attention to their lifestyle. In that case, one would tend to experience either jealousy or fatalism since the person just seems to have “good genes” and an invasive intervention at this “hardware” level may still appear risky or even dystopian. In the latter example, however, it suddenly becomes clear that external factors play an equally important role: our biological age does not in fact progress programmatically or in a linear fashion. Blows of fate, environmental influences as well as lifestyle choices clearly influence the ageing process. Acceleration, deceleration and even regression seem equally plausible: indeed, we have all encountered acquaintances who, after successfully overcoming an existential challenge, re-emerge more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than ever.
The Epigenetic Clock
This is what makes the so-called epigenetic clock so interesting and relevant, as it sets a scientific benchmark to measure the progression of ageing – and not just once and for all since it can be enrolled as a particularly helpful gauge to optimise personal lifestyle over a longer period.But what the heck is an epigenetic clock? An epigenetic clock is not a clock in the conventional sense, but a biochemical test carried out on a sample of bodily fluid or tissue. What is analysed here is not the DNA in the enclosed cells, but chemical reactions – so-called “methylation” – that take place at specific locations around the DNA. These methylation processes are not mutations, but modifications that cause the expression or silencing of a particular gene sequence. Hence, what is being studied here is not genetics, but epigenetics– from the Greek “epi” – on, around or above the genes. So, instead of looking at the hardware inside, we are examining the software currently running in that particular environment. The determination of a certain degree of methylation at selected sites around the DNA enables the general determination of current biological age and, depending on the type of tissue sample and the sites considered, also provides potential clues to fundamental changes or pathological developments.
While Steve Horvath, a German-American professor of human genetics at UCLA , is perceived as one of the pivotal fathers of the first “multi-tissue” epigenetic clocks (2013), intensive research has been pursued ever since in order to both develop epigenetic clocks for specific purposes (e.g. cancer and dementia early detection or new insights into developmental biology) and design faster, more precise and cheaper alternatives for age determination so as to make them more interesting and reliable for the lifestyle consumer sector. Accordingly, the epiAge test was developed by Professor Moshe Szyf and his team at McGill University in Montreal to radically democratise this exciting procedure. Interested customers simply contribute a small saliva sample to have it analysed at low cost and obtain a scientifically based estimate of their biological age.
This unique determination of biological age should serve as a compass for individuals. If their biological age turns out to be significantly younger than the chronological age, it will confirm that their lifestyle to date has been relatively healthy. However, if the discrepancy is reversed, it can certainly be perceived as a wake-up call. Individuals should then be empowered to take responsibility for their own well-being by reviewing the pace of their lives, their diets, their sleeping patterns, or exercise habits and realigning them with the latest findings of scientific anti-ageing. The epiAge blog presents numerous science-backed suggestions to support you on the path towards healthier ageing, with issues such as: What nutrients and food supplements should I be ingesting and in which combination? Am I sleeping enough to ensure my body's regeneration? How much exercise is optimal and what kind of exercise supports longevity? Would mindfulness help me achieve more balance in my hectic everyday life? Ideally, epiAge tests are then conducted at regular intervals (from six months to a year) so that both positive and negative developments can be detected early and then accordingly adjusted. Thus, complex lab-based biomedical research becomes a tool for self-exploration in everyday life. And this should pave the way from ageing perceived as fate to more self-determined ageing since, after all, YOU have the choice!