The aging process is a reflection of the changes resulting from both genetic and environmental factors that we are each subject to over the course of time. But why does disease and disability take a toll that varies so significantly from person to person? Is it simply a combination of good genes, a healthy diet, regular exercise, low stress, and not smoking? Scientists believe there is a more complex array of forces that affects our longevity and quality of life than can be readily understood by a simple checklist of do’s and don’ts. The triggers for aging in the cells and tissues of our body, the reason aging occurs, and the mechanism that produces the changes of aging remains an active source of scientific enquiry. Gaining a deeper understanding of these aspects of aging will help us not only to live longer but potentially, to live better.
Current research is directed at the emerging field of epigenetics, which investigates how genes are affected by the environment to influence the aging process. The merging of nature and nurture in the study of epigenetics has led to a new way of interpreting the aging process. Epigenomes are chemical tags or markers present in our DNA that help to control gene activity. Epigenomes, however, can be affected by exposures to toxins in our diet or environment that may result in a change in genetic functioning. Most of these changes are felt to be harmless but some could lead to genetic signals that result in a disease or age related condition that otherwise might lie dormant or not appear till later in life.
The direction of investigation in this intriguing field of research is looking at whether epigenome changes may contribute to the long-term differences in the health and aging of each of us. The issue of a single event being sufficient to alter the course of an epigenome versus a series of events being necessary to produce a change remains unknown. The body’s age at which such an event occurs is also being questioned to see if the stage in life may affect the consequences, or lack thereof, for the epigenome.
If differences between individuals can be linked to the epigenetic switch found on the genome, we may be able to improve the quality of life as we age. Stay tuned!
Written by Dr. Forley on September 5, 2012