Israeli researchers part of team to measure 'real age' of young adults

Biomarkers show some young adults are aging three times faster than others.

MOLDOVIAN JEWS celebrate Shabbat at Limmud FSU conference last year.  (photo credit: COURTESY LIMMUD FSU)
MOLDOVIAN JEWS celebrate Shabbat at Limmud FSU conference last year.
(photo credit: COURTESY LIMMUD FSU)
A technique to measure the aging process in people who are only 26 to 38 years old – before their first gray hair has appeared – has been developed by an international research team that includes Israel, the US, the UK and New Zealand. The scientists identified factors that can determine whether people are aging faster or slower than their peers and to quantify both their biological age and how quickly they are aging.
In a paper appearing Wednesday in the Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences, the researchers showed that even among young adults, a person’s biological age may differ by many years from their actual chronological age. For example, among 38 year olds studied, the participants’ biological age was found to range from under 30 to nearly 60 years old. That means that some participants’ biological age was more than 20 years older than their birth certificates indicated.
“This research shows that age-related decline is already happening in young adults who are decades away from developing age-related diseases and that we can measure it,” said Dr. Salomon Israel, a researcher and senior lecturer in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s psychology department and a co-author of the study.
Israel joined HU’s faculty in January after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in psychology of neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina.
The information comes from the Dunedin Study, a long-term health study in New Zealand seeking clues to the aging process. The study tracks over 1,000 people born in 1972 and 1973 from birth to the present, using health measures like blood pressure and liver function, as well as interviews.
As part of their regular reassessment of the study population in 2011, the team measured the functions of kidneys, liver, lungs and the metabolic and immune systems.
They also measured HDL (“good”) cholesterol, cardiorespiratory fitness, lung function and the length of the telomeres – protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that have been found to erode with age. The study also measures dental health and the condition of the tiny blood vessels at the back of the eyes, a proxy for the brain’s blood vessels.
Based on a subset of these biomarkers, the research team determined a biological age for each participant.
The researchers then looked at 18 biomarkers that were measured when the participants were age 26 and again when they were 32 and 38.
From this, they drew a slope for each variable, and then the 18 slopes were added for each study subject to determine that individual’s pace of aging.
Most participants clustered around an aging rate of one year per year, but others were found to be aging as fast as three years per chronological year. Many were aging at zero years per year, in effect staying younger than their age.
As the team expected, those who were biologically older at age 38 also appeared to have been aging at a faster pace. A biological age of 40, for example, meant that person was aging at a rate of 1.2 years per year over the 12 years the study examined.
Study members who appeared to be more advanced in biological aging scored worse on tests typically given to people over 60, including tests of balance and coordination and solving unfamiliar problems. The biologically older individuals also reported having more difficulties with physical functioning than their peers, such as walking up stairs.
As an added measure, the researchers asked Duke University undergrads to assess facial photos of the study participants taken at age 38 and rate how young or old they appeared. Again, the participants who were biologically older on the inside also appeared older to the college students.
“We set out to measure aging in these relatively young people,” said Dan Belsky, an assistant professor of geriatrics in Duke University’s Center for Aging and the study’s first author. “Most studies of aging look at seniors, but if we want to be able to prevent age-related disease, we’re going to have to start studying aging in young people.”
“That gives us some hope that medicine might be able to slow aging and give people more healthy active years,” added psychology and neuroscience Prof. Terrie Moffitt, the study’s senior author.
The ultimate goal is to be able to intervene in the aging process itself, rather than addressing killers like heart disease or cancer in isolation.
“Accelerated aging in young adults predicts the symptoms of advanced aging that we see in older adults: deficits in cognitive and physical functioning, feelings of ill-health and even an older appearance.
The ability to measure how quickly a young person is aging may in the future enable us to engage in interventions that slow aging or target specific diseases,” HU’s Dr. Israel said.