Genetic knowledge is power

Dr Karen Anthony — Lecturer in Molecular Bioscience

In aging-related research we often focus on searching for genes associated with disease or extreme longevity. Instead, using a group of healthy 65-year old individuals researchers at King’s College London have taken a novel approach and defined a ‘healthy aging signature’ based on 150 genes. They formulated a biological age score which varies dramatically in people of the same chronological age and correlates with cognitive health. What does this mean? Well, in theory, your score (that can be obtained from a simple blood test) can tell you how well you are aging and could predict your longevity and cognitive decline. The research is still in the experimental phase but if developed, the potential future applications are huge.

From identifying a potential risk of dementia to facilitating drug development and organ donation; this promises to be a reliable tool to define biological age and could further our understanding of aging and the underlying causes of age-related disease. It could tell us how well we are aging before any physical and/or mental age-related symptoms appear, and provide a more valid assessment of the state of our health and wellbeing than the subjective assessment of our chronological age. With a distinct diagnostic approach this study is removed from epigenetic and telomere aging models and the researchers found no effect of lifestyle factors such as exercise on the defining 150 genes, resulting in highly specific clinical aging data. So would you want to know your biological age, particularly when we have no knowledge of how to improve it?

Genetic knowledge is power. It is beyond good or bad news, your health care is no longer a ‘one size fits all’ model; armed with genetic knowledge you are an empowered and proactive (future?) patient. With continued validation and research such predictive, preventive, personalised and participatory (P4) medicine can tackle the huge cost associated with an increasing aging population (dementia costs alone amount to £26 billion a year). I would have no problem in using validated genetic data to better monitor and manage my health, but I must stress we are a long way away from achieving this using this single, still experimental, biological age tool. The biggest challenge may not even be the science but the societal change required to combat ethical, legal and social concerns.