New test can tell how fast one's body is ageing

It could help predict when a person will die and identify those at high risk of dementia

LONDON • Scientists say they have developed a way of testing how well, or badly, your body is ageing. They say it could help predict when a person will die, identify those at high risk of dementia and could affect medicine, pensions and insurance.

The seven-year collaborative study at King's College London, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Duke University in the United States, used a process called RNA-profiling to measure and compare gene expression in thousands of human tissue samples.

The researchers say looking at "biological age" is more useful than using a date of birth. However, the work, published in online journal Genome Biology, provides no clues as to how to slow the ageing process.

The test looks for an "ageing signature" in your body's cells by comparing the behaviour of 150 genes.

It was developed by initially comparing 54,000 markers of gene activity in healthy, but largely sedentary, 25- and 65-year-olds and then whittling them down to a final 150.

IDENTIFYING THOSE AT RISK

"What we really need now are tools to identify those most at risk in 10, 20 years' time and I think that's where this research will really have an impact."

PROF JAMIE TIMMONS, King's College London

"There's a healthy ageing signature that's common to all our tissues, and it appears to be prognostic for a number of things, including longevity and cognitive decline," Professor Jamie Timmons, from King's College London, told BBC. "It looks like from the age of 40 onwards, you can use this to give guidance on how well an individual is ageing."

The team said "health" and "age" were two separate entities.

And while some lifestyle decisions, like spending all day on the sofa, could be bad for your health, they do not appear to affect the speed at which your body ages.

The team believed that combining lifestyle factors and your biological age would give a more accurate picture of your health.

The researchers tried the test out on samples from a group of 70-year-old men in Sweden. They worked out who was ageing well and who was ageing very rapidly and were able to predict who would die in the next few years. "You could actually pick out people who had almost no chance of being dead, and you have people who had an almost 45 per cent chance of being dead," Prof Timmons told BBC.

There are plans to pilot the test in organ transplants in Britain to see if people who are technically old, but have a young "biological age", can still donate organs safely.

The researchers say it could also alter cancer screening, with people who are ageing rapidly needing to be screened at a younger age.

Prof Timmons said the test would also form a "useful tool" in predicting the onset of dementia.

"What we really need now are tools to identify those most at risk in 10, 20 years' time and I think that's where this research will really have an impact," he added.

Checking your biological age could have wide-ranging consequences from pensions to insurance premiums. "You might decide not to pay so much into your pension and enjoy your life as it is now," Prof Timmons said.

Dr Eric Karran, from the charity Alzheimer's Research UK, said a blood test for diseases like Alzheimer's would need rigorous validating to show it was accurate and sensitive before it could be used in the clinic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2015, with the headline 'New test can tell how fast one's body is ageing'. Print Edition | Subscribe