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What Is Epigenetics and How Can It Affect the Aging Process?

  • 5 min read

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

What if I told you the decisions you make today will have a ripple effect on the health of your family for many generations to come? While it may sound odd, your midnight snacking may lead to you packing on a few more pounds over the years. But, you may wonder how it may affect your generations to come when they don’t even exist in the present time. That is where epigenetics come in.

In this article, we are going to dive deeper into what epigenetics is, the research behind it, and how it can help slow down the aging process.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. It is recommended to speak to your doctor about anti-aging methods.

What is Epigenetics?

Understanding how your genes, behaviors, and environment influence your health is vital. Your genes are like a blueprint, but they’re not the only factors that matter. Epigenetics is a way scientists study how your actions and surroundings can cause changes in how your genes work. These changes aren’t permanent and don’t alter your DNA sequence, but they can affect how your body reads the instructions in your genes.

Gene expression is all about how often or when your body makes proteins using the instructions in your genes. While changes in your genes can affect which protein is made, epigenetics changes impact gene expression by turning genes “on” or “off.” Since your behaviors and environment, like what you eat and how active you are, can lead to these epigenetic changes, you can see how your genes are connected to the way you live your life.

How Does Epigenetics Work?

In your body, each cell contains all your DNA, like an instruction manual. But to know what to do, the DNA needs outside instructions. These instructions come as tiny compounds called methyl groups that stick to the genes and tell them when to be active or stay quiet. It’s like giving each cell a job description. Histones, on the other hand, are protein molecules that DNA wraps around. How tightly they are wound determines how strongly a gene works, like adjusting the volume.

The epigenome is a combination of methyl groups and histones that gives orders to the cells. Unlike your DNA, the epigenome can change throughout life, turning genes on or off. Significant changes, like puberty or pregnancy, can cause these shifts, but external factors play a role too. Things like exercise, diet, stress, smoking, or drinking can affect the epigenome. If mistakes happen in this process, it can lead to diseases and disorders.

Interestingly, while the genome remains the same from birth to death, the epigenome can be different. You might think that each new person starts with a fresh epigenome, but sometimes changes get stuck and can be passed down to the next generation. So, what we do and how we live can affect not only us but also our descendants through these epigenetic changes.

Scientific Studies That Back It Up

During the Dutch Hunger Winter in World War II, babies exposed to famine before birth faced a higher risk of metabolic disease later in life due to changes in their DNA methylation. Remarkably, these alterations persisted for over six decades, showing how the environment can impact gene expression long-term.

In another study, identical twins were initially similar in their epigenetics. However, as they aged, differences in their methyl groups and histones emerged, influencing gene expression and accounting for variations in their health.

Furthermore, damaged or weakened DNA during replication can lead to alternative epigenetic states, affecting multiple generations. A study on roundworms revealed that impaired DNA replication caused increased expression of certain genetic material, potentially altering an organism’s characteristics. Similarly, impaired DNA replication during prenatal development can have lasting epigenetic consequences for an organism’s complete set of DNA or genome.

How Can Epigenetics Improve Ageing and Longevity?

Although the concept of epigenetics might seem daunting at first, it has the potential to offer exciting prospects. While the field of epigenetics is still in its early stages, there are reasons to be hopeful and enthusiastic about its future implications.

Below are some advantages of epigenetics:

1.      It redefines age

Epigenetics helps determine your biological age, reflecting how well your body functions. Unlike your chronological age, it considers factors affecting health, leading to different biological ages among individuals of the same age. Knowing your biological age is essential for improving overall health and extending your health span.

2.      It could alter the way we treat diseases

The epigenome can mimic genetic mutations, raising disease risks. By understanding and manipulating epigenetic errors with drugs, there’s hope to find cures for certain diseases caused by epigenetics, like cancer and autoimmune disorders.

3.      It can improve the diagnostic process

Early diagnosis is crucial for better prognosis in most diseases. Epigenetics enable doctors to detect illnesses before symptoms appear due to artificial intelligence and machine learning — FDA-approved biomarkers like SEPT9 aid in diagnosing diseases, such as colorectal cancer, using simple blood samples.