Time Is an Illusion: All You Need to Know About Epigenetic Clocks
As human beings, we operate in linear time – minutes, days, weeks, and years into the future or past.
Because of that, we often correlate our mortality and expected lifespan to our chronological age, a feeling of helplessness accompanying the inevitable aging process. But the truth is our longevity relies upon our biological age more than our chronological age – now more than ever.
In fact, there’s a way you can measure your current biological age to see how much, or how little, you’re aging compared to your chronological age.
You can do this through an epigenetic clock.
Before we dive into what an epigenetic clock is and how you can utilize one to maximize your longevity, let’s talk about the significance of your biological age.
Biological age versus chronological age
What’s the difference between your biological age and your chronological age?
Chronological age is the age we all know. It’s how long you have existed, whereas biological age is determined by how old your cells are.
Biological age refers to how much damage can been done to your cells and can more accurately predict the onset of disease and death than chronological age can.
We all know this, but it bears repeating – although our biological age may be influenced by genetics, much of it is also impacted by external factors, such as: diet, exercise, stress, smoking, sleeping habits, and your physical environment. The state of your DNA is a reflection of those factors, making your biological age even more important than your chronological age in many ways.
The good news is that you do have some control over your biological age, and it’s never too late to become “younger” biologically by introducing positive changes in your lifestyle.
How do you measure your biological age?
The best way to measure your biological age is with an epigenetic clock.
Epigenetic clocks are biochemical markers of aging that can be used to predict a person’s biological age, which may differ from their chronological age.
Just as a regular clock tracks the passage of time, epigenetic clocks track changes in DNA that occur with age. These changes, called epigenetic modifications, are chemical tags that attach to DNA and help control which genes are turned on or off.
As we age, our DNA accumulates more and more of these epigenetic changes. The accumulation of these changes is thought to contribute to the aging process, and so scientists can use them as a marker of aging.
History of epigenetic clocks
Although the correlation between age and DNA methylation has been known for decades, the first epigenetic clock was introduced in 2011 by Steve Horvath, a professor of human genetics at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The development of the “Horvath clock” led to further research and investigation into epigenetic clocks - studies which expanded the clock’s applications to different tissues and cell types.
Since then, a number of epigenetic clocks have been developed, including ones for specific tissues, ones that predict biological age, and ones that incorporate additional epigenetic markers outside of DNA methylation.
Benefits of epigenetic clocks
There are a couple primary benefits epigenetic clocks provide.
For one, epigenetic clocks can be used to monitor the effects of interventions designed to improve health and extend life. This is a promising application of this research, as it could potentially allow us to fine-tune these interventions and make them more effective.
Although epigenetic clocks are still being refined, they have already been used in a number of studies to investigate aging and age-related diseases.
For example, epigenetic clocks have been used to study how aging affects the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It has also been used to study how aging differs between different tissues in the body.
What’s more, this exciting area of research can help us understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect aging. In fact, one study has already found that exposure to air pollution can accelerate the aging process by causing changes in the DNA methylation patterns of certain genes.
Secondly, epigenetic clocks can be used to measure the rate of aging in different tissues and organs. This is important because it suggests that different tissues age at different rates, which has implications for our understanding of how diseases progress.
As an individual consumer (you may consider yourself a biohacker), you can use an epigenetic clock and its test results to show you how you’re aging in different parts of your body. Then, you can incorporate recommended lifestyle changes in order to slow or reverse your biological age. In doing so, you can increase your longevity by adding years back into your life.
Various types of epigenetic clocks
What makes one epigenetic clock different from another?
Epigenetic clocks can be classified by their generations. There are first, second, and third generation epigenetic clocks.
First generation epigenetic clocks are predictive tests that guess your chronological age based on DNA methylation patterns.
Second generation epigenetic clocks predict how long you’re going to live by reflecting aging-related physiological conditions.
Lastly, a third generation epigenetic clock takes into account changes in biomarkers over time, recording the rate of aging. This epigenetic clock is known as the Dunedin Pace of Aging methylation clock (DunedinPoAm).
If you’re curious about epigenetic clocks and want to find one to test your biological age, you might be overwhelmed by the options, but here’s a guide that narrows down the top five. Some tests may include additional information you might be interested in, such as a report on your telomere length, biological age of different systems of your body, or even interesting information like how your body responds to alcohol or weight loss.
Overall, epigenetic clocks are an undeniable tool in the quest for longevity.
They provide us with data we need to understand where our health currently sits, based on the state of our DNA in different areas of our bodies. With this information, we can make positive changes to slow or reverse our biological age. As these clocks get refined in the future, they are likely to yield even more insights into the complex process of aging and longevity.
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