In a recent study, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Pediatrics examined the relationship between measures of obesity and DNA methylation in young adults.
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While the study of genetics focuses on heredity and alterations in the genetic code itself, epigenetics refers to the changes in gene expression that occur as a result of environmental or lifestyle factors. Advances in epigenetic research have allowed measures of DNA methylation (DNAm) (epigenetic clocks) to illustrate clear links between obesity, accelerated epigenetic aging and a variety of negative health outcomes in older adults. Despite these advances, there is a lack of research about these correlations and sex-based variations among young adults. The ability to detect accelerated epigenetic aging in young adulthood could potentially be used to prevent the onset of chronic diseases and improve health outcomes later in life.
“Moreover, few studies have included replication across measures of obesity and epigenetic aging to examine the robustness or specificity of these effects. Finally, little is known about sex differences in the links between obesity and epigenetic aging, despite evidence of substantial sex dimorphism in both physiological and epigenetic aging .”
In a recent study, researchers Christy Anne Foster, Malcolm Barker-Kamps, Marlon Goering, Amit Patki, Hemant K. Tiwari, and Sylvie Mrug from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Pediatrics examined the relationship between obesity and measures of DNAm in young adults. They also investigated whether there is a sex-dependant correlation between obesity and DNAm in young adults. On January 18, 2023, their research paper was published in Aging’s Volume 15, Issue 2, and entitled, “Epigenetic age acceleration correlates with BMI in young adults.”
Research and Results
Here, the researchers explored the relationship between measures of obesity and epigenetic age acceleration in young adults. The team included a cross-sectional community sample of 290 healthy young adults—with 60% being female, 80% African American, 18% White, and a total mean age of 27 years old. The researchers measured participant BMI and waist circumference, and also calculated their epigenetic age acceleration using four epigenetic age estimators (derived from salivary DNA): Hannum DNAm, Horvath DNAm, Phenoage DNAm, and GrimAge DNAm. In addition, they collected data on covariates, including age, sex, race, parental education, and income-to-needs ratio.
After covariates were adjusted for, the researchers found that DNAm PhenoAge was higher in participants who had higher body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference in both sexes, with a stronger effect on BMI in males compared to females. Horvath DNA methylation age was associated with participants who had larger waist circumferences, but not BMI. Higher Hannum DNAm age was associated with both higher BMI and waist circumference in men, but not in women. In this study, GrimAge was not associated with either BMI or waist circumference. As a whole, none of the associations with the DNAm indicators varied by race. The researchers found that scoring higher on one or more of the four DNAm indicators was associated with an older chronological age, lower socioeconomic status, being female and White, as well as saliva cell composition.
“Together, these results suggest that higher BMI and waist circumference are associated with higher epigenetic age in young adulthood. Because the analyses adjusted for chronological age, associations with higher epigenetic age indicate faster epigenetic aging . Importantly, this study demonstrated associations between obesity and epigenetic aging using DNA from saliva, which involves a non-invasive sample collection compared to other tissues (e.g., blood) and thus can be more readily translated into clinical practice, highlighting the usefulness in young adults.”
Significance and Limitations
These findings are significant because they suggest that body weight plays a role in determining epigenetic age acceleration, which in turn can affect overall health and lifespan. Previous research has shown that epigenetic age acceleration is associated with increased risk for age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. However, it is important to note that this study only shows a correlation between BMI and epigenetic age acceleration and does not provide evidence of causality. It is possible that other factors, such as diet, exercise and stress levels, could also contribute to the relationship between BMI and epigenetic age acceleration.
The authors were forthcoming about several study limitations in their research paper, including a relatively small sample size which limited statistical power and precluded rigorous analysis of individual CpG sites. The original sample was locally representative but experienced some differential attrition over time, which could limit generalizability to certain populations. Epigenetic clocks have been tested primarily in White populations and may be less relevant to African American individuals who comprised the majority of this sample. This study used salivary DNA, so replication using DNA extracted from other tissues will be important for future work. The cross-sectional design did not allow testing directional effects between BMI and epigenetic aging over time. None of the CpGs used in calculating methylation age were part of known causal effect on BMI as per Mendelian Randomization studies; further modeling with outcomes from other tissues impacted by obesity may provide more insight into methylation aging process.
In conclusion, this study sheds light on the relationship between BMI and epigenetic age acceleration in young adults. The results suggest that young adults with higher BMIs may be aging faster and at a higher risk for age-related diseases. These findings highlight the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle, not only for weight management but also for overall health and lifespan.
In the context of the growing obesity epidemic and the increasing focus on personalized medicine and preventive health, this study provides valuable insights into the potential health impacts of body weight and the role of epigenetics in health and disease. Further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms behind this relationship and to determine the best approaches for improving health and lifespan in young adults.
“In conclusion, this study extends prior research by demonstrating the association between obesity and salivary epigenetic aging in young adult males and females. These findings are of interest to those who are interested in epigenetic age acceleration as a potential biomarker. They also support future research examining obesity as a causal risk factor for epigenetic age acceleration. The findings underscore the importance of testing sex differences and including multiple epigenetic clocks in future research. Overall, the present results add to mounting evidence that obesity affects cellular aging across multiple tissues early in the lifespan.”
Click here to read the full research paper published by Aging.
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