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A new study has identified possible non-pharmacological (dietary and lifestyle interventions) approaches for reversing epigenetic age (aging based on the structure of DNA).
The research was published in the journal Aging in April 2021. It was completed by researchers from the National University of Natural Medicine in partnership with contributors from the American Nutrition Association, Institute for Functional Medicine, the University of California, and McGill University in Canada.
Manipulations to slow down aging and extend lifespan are increasingly important given the hefty societal and healthcare costs of our aging population. Indeed, advanced age is the leading risk factor for cognitive impairment and chronic, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegeneration.
Economic models have predicted that delaying aging by 2.2 years could help save $7 over the next 50 years. A paper released by professor David A. Sinclair (a Harvard genetics professor) in collaboration with top economists based in the UK demonstrated that targeting aging is more economically viable than eradicating specific diseases. The work was published in Nature in July 2021.
Scientists are now expanding their scope in the quest to identify practical interventions that may help alleviate the public health and healthcare economics impact of aging.
One promising area of focus is epigenetic aging. DNA methylation is a biological process that causes structural changes to a DNA segment. It controls gene expression and is one of the three key markers of epigenetic aging. Indeed, the best biochemical markers of an individual’s age are all based on patterns of DNA methylation. Researchers typically use saliva or other tissue samples to analyze this process.
Years of research in epigenetics have helped scientists develop DNA methylation clocks. These are unique tools that estimate epigenetic aging by measuring systematic DNA methylation changes. Horvath DNAmAge (DNA methylation Age) is currently one of the best-studied clocks that predicts multiple morbidities and all-cause mortality better than calendar age.
The researchers in this study analyzed 43 healthy adults aged between 50 and 72 years. Participants were educated for a period of one week and diet and lifestyle interventions were then employed over a duration of eight weeks. Saliva samples were used to extract high-quality DNA for assessment via the DNAmAge clock.
The goal of the study was to see whether the DNAmAge clock could be potentially slowed. The 8-week treatment program included diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation guidance, and supplemental probiotics and phytonutrients.
Dietary recommendations used were largely based on biochemistry and generalized health guidance. Study subjects were required to focus on a plant-centered diet containing nutrients that are used in methylation pathways, along with fish and limited nutrient-dense animal proteins such as liver and eggs. Carbohydrates were restricted and mild intermittent fasting was included. The researchers observed a modest but significant reduction in DNAmAge in individuals who followed the highlighted dietary practice.
Lifestyle measures included a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise daily for at least 5 days per week. This was at an intensity of 60 – 80 percent of maximum perceived exertion. Exercise is widely recognized to be beneficial for nearly all aspects of health and has been shown to extend mean lifespan in animal models. A past study assessing the impact of regular tai chi practice in 500 women showed that it helped slow down age-related DNA methylation losses.
Participants were also required to engage in twice-daily breathing exercises to elicit the Relaxation Response for stress reduction. Recent studies have demonstrated that 60 days of relaxation practice, at 20 minutes twice daily, could significantly reduce DNAmAge of healthy candidates.
Another lifestyle intervention incorporated in this study was sleep optimization. Participants were required to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night (which is generally considered to be healthy). In a past study sampling 2078 women, insomnia was linked to the acceleration of the DNAmAge clock. Similar studies have associated poor quality or fewer hours of sleep with age acceleration.
This multimodal intervention was entirely based on dietary and lifestyle adjustments that are widely considered to be safe even over the long term. The researchers observed that compared to the control group, the diet and lifestyle treatment led to a 3.23 years reduction in DNAmAge. This was the first randomized controlled study suggesting that specific dietary and lifestyle interventions could reverse DNAmAge epigenetic aging in healthy adult males.
This study offers valuable insights and signifies that simple lifestyle adjustments may be enough to reverse epigenetic aging. However, it is important to note that scientists have not yet fully established that interventions that slow the methylation clock could necessarily lower the risk of age-related disease. A larger study group still needs to be assessed to optimize the program for efficacy, scalability, and affordability.