Healthy Aging: There’s an Algorithm for That

Detecting diseases earlier may come down to tracking how the body is functioning as a whole system.

A new blood test developed by researchers at Yale University includes biomarkers for blood sugar, kidney and liver function, as well as immune and inflammatory markers. These blood measures (which research suggests drive aging pathways) are combined with an algorithm to come up with a biologic age or “phenotypic” age.

Unlike your chronological age, your biological age is the age at which your vital organs are functioning.

“The exciting thing about this research is that these things aren’t set in stone,” says Dr. Morgan Levine. “If we are given the information much earlier in the process, before the patient develops disease – then they can take steps to improve their health before it’s too late.”

Dr. Morgan Levine, today a professor at Yale, first began developing the algorithm as a post-doc at UCLA; she was a fellow in human genetics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, where she worked with Steve Horvath, Ph.D., to help identify specific DNA methylation sites along the epigenome that are highly correlated with biomarkers of biological age and chronological age.

Levine hopes that this simple blood test could flag if an otherwise healthy person is aging more rapidly than normal. And empower patients to take action sooner, before experiencing symptoms.

  • This phenotypic age was based on clinical chemistry measures that are routinely ordered by a physician (kidney/liver panel, CBC, lipids, glucose, etc.) and, together, are robust predictors of death and disease.
  • To create the test, the scientists looked at 42 different clinical measures, such as white blood cell count, glucose and albumin levels, that were recorded for people who took part in two large studies as part of the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). The studies gathered people’s medical and lifestyle details and were linked to death records.
  • The scientists used information from 10,000 people in the first study, which ran from 1988 to 1994, to identify clinical measures that most strongly predicted life expectancy. From this work, the scientists developed a combined test based on nine biomarkers which they validated in 11,000 people who had taken part in the second study, which ran from 1999 to 2010.
  • Levine posted details of the research on the online repository, Biorxiv.
  • The results were quite notable. If a person’s biological age was much higher than their real age, their risk of dying younger shot up. Among 50- to 64-year-olds, a quarter of those ageing fastest died over the next ten years.
  • This new epigenetic clock, called DNAm PhenoAge, according to the study strongly outperforms previous age clocks in terms of predicting aging outcomes, including all-cause mortality, cancers, healthspan, physical functioning, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Tracking a patient’s biochemistry like mitochondria function and chronic inflammation is a new approach.

Epigenetics examines how genes are switched on and off by chemical additions to DNA, which alters how the cell “reads” DNA. Levine’s lab is in a sense developing an epigenetic clock that could push medicine to treat aging, instead of siloed diseases separately.

Econometric projections suggest that interventions that achieve even modest slowing of biological aging could reduce burden of disease more than curing all cancer and heart disease combined (1). Interventions to slow the biological processes of aging could prevent or delay many different diseases simultaneously, prolonging healthy years of life

Using Phenotypic Age in Clinical Trials
Dr. Valter Longo, a leading aging researcher at the University of Southern California, is collaborating with Levine on developing a smartphone app.

Measuring telomere length, senescent cells, and DNA methlyation are all biomarkers of aging. But according to Longo, blood work is a good indicator of how the body (biochemically speaking) is working.

“For now we don’t have a system that can do anything to address telomere length.”

While he doesn’t believe inflammation causes aging, unresolved chronic inflammation can indicate underlying problems. Trying a cryogenic freeze to slow aging sounds exciting. But what experts in the aging field like Dr. Longo recommend and backed by evidence, is getting a high sensitivity C-Reactive protein blood test.