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Accelerated Aging May Increase Risk Of Cancers In Younger Generations

1 month ago

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Posted on Apr 16, 2024, 7 p.m.

According to research presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2024, accelerated aging was found to be more common in recent birth cohorts, and it was also associated with an increased incidence of early-onset solid tumors. 

“Multiple cancer types are becoming increasingly common among younger adults in the United States and globally,” said Ruiyi Tian, MPH, a graduate student in the lab of Yin Cao, ScD, MPH at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Understanding the factors driving this increase will be key to improve the prevention or early detection of cancers in younger and future generations.”

The researchers hypothesized that increased biological age, which is indicative of accelerated aging, may contribute to the development of early-onset cancers diagnosed in adults under the age of 55 years old. While chronological age measures how long a person has been alive, biological age refers to the condition of the body and physiological processes, and it is considered to be modifiable. 

“Unlike chronological age, biological age may be influenced by factors such as diet, physical activity, mental health, and environmental stressors,” she added. “Accumulating evidence suggests that the younger generations may be aging more swiftly than anticipated, likely due to earlier exposure to various risk factors and environmental insults. However, the impact of accelerated aging on early-onset cancer development remains unclear.”

To investigate associations between biological age and the risk of cancer in younger individuals, the researchers examined data from 148,724 participants who were enrolled in the UK Biobank containing genetic, lifestyle, health information, and biological samples. Participant biological age was calculated using nine biomarkers found in blood: albumin, alkaline phosphatase, creatinine, C-reactive protein, glucose, mean corpuscular volume, red cell distribution width, white blood cell count, and lymphocyte proportion. Those with a biological age that was higher than their chronological age were defined as having accelerated aging. 

After evaluating accelerated aging across birth cohorts, the researchers found that those born in or after 1965 had a 17% higher likelihood of accelerated aging compared to those born between 1950 and 1954. After evaluating the association between accelerated aging and the risk of early-onset cancers, the researchers found that each standard deviation increase in accelerated aging was associated with a 42% increased risk of early-onset lung cancer, a 22% increased risk of early-onset gastrointestinal cancer, and a 36% increased risk of early-onset uterine cancer. 

Additionally, the researchers found that accelerated aging did not significantly impact the risk of late-onset lung cancer (diagnosis after the age of 55 years old), however, it was associated with a 16% increased risk of late-onset gastrointestinal cancer, and a 23% increased risk of late-onset uterine cancer. 

“By examining the relationship between accelerating aging and the risk of early-onset cancers, we provide a fresh perspective on the shared etiology of early-onset cancers,” Tian said. “If validated, our findings suggest that interventions to slow biological aging could be a new avenue for cancer prevention, and screening efforts tailored to younger individuals with signs of accelerated aging could help detect cancers early.”

While the study did not identify specific factors contributing to accelerated aging the researchers noted previous studies that linked environmental and lifestyle influences to potential causes, which could include but are not limited to lack of physical activity, poor diet, exposure to radiation, air travel, and increased exposure to endocrine-disrupting forever chemicals called PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that are linked to thyroid disorders, hormonal changes, weight gain, and cancers among other health problems. 

“It’s been known in the aging field for many years now that accelerated aging processes [are] predisposed to cancer,” said James Kirkland, Noaber Foundation professor of aging research at the Mayo Clinic, who also heads the Translational Geroscience Network, a research collaboration with a focus on fundamental mechanisms of aging and potential clinical interventions to prevent, delay or treat age-related diseases (currently there are over 80 ongoing clinical trials through this collaboration).

Diabetes, pre-eclampsia, obesity, and undergoing cancer treatments have all been associated with younger populations developing an accelerated stage of aging that leads to an earlier accumulation of senescent cells. Senescent cells are also called “zombie cells” because they no longer divide or die but continue to secrete compounds that are harmful to tissues and cells that are around them, and these zombie cells promote inflammation and numbers increase with age. 

“If you introduce senescent cells and accelerate fundamental aging processes in preclinical models, you accelerate development of every kind of cancer there is. At least in most models,” Kirkland said.  

The average lifespan has been on an upward trend since the 1980s which took a hit during the pandemic and started to decline. As life expectancy has risen an opposing trend has also emerged according to Kirkland who said “So, in the last few years, there’s been a three-year increase in median lifespan in the United Kingdom. There’s been a three-year decrease in what we call healthspan. That is the period of life during which you’re healthy, free, independent — you know — free of pain, disability, etc., and cognitive impairment.”

On a global scale, the fundamental markers of aging are being observed in younger generations despite lower rates of smoking, even when potentially confounding factors such as obesity are considered. This could suggest that there may be environmental factors involved that have yet to be determined. 

This reverse phenomenon was observed in the 1950s when pollution control came into effect, resulting in a delay in cancers being observed during this time. Potential causes of accelerating aging such as air travel, radiation exposure, and PFAS should be looked into further to determine if they may be the factors. 

There is another phenomenon worth mentioning, where the disparities between biological and chronological aging are of benefit. Some people with a lower biological age who live in Blue Zones experience higher rates of increased longevity, routinely living into and past 100 years old in good health. These longevity warriors live longer and healthier than most people, and they often share similar healthful lifestyle habits like having a positive mindset, being physically active, getting enough sleep, having a strong sense of community, fostering strong social bonds, drinking plenty of water, taking time to enjoy the little things, and having a diet that focuses on whole foods and avoid processed foods. 

“Just knowing biological age alone — as was talked about in this paper or this presentation — is not enough. That’s helpful, but if you can’t do anything about it … and I see this in patients, create a lot of anxiety,” said Kirkland. “There is serious academic work going on with [Food and Drug Administration] and regulated clinical trials that are funded by various branches of the government or reputable organizations like the Alzheimer’s Foundation or Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. Those trials are underway. We don’t know the answers yet.”

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