In an international study led by the University of Edinburgh, experts have pinpointed genes that may help explain why some people age better than others. The analysis of genetic data from more than a million people suggests that healthy blood iron levels may be key to slower aging and longer life.
The study has major implications for slowing the progression of biological aging. According to the researchers, the findings could accelerate the development of drugs to reduce age-related diseases, extend healthy years of life, and increase the chances of living to old age free of disease.
“We are very excited by these findings as they strongly suggest that high levels of iron in the blood reduce our healthy years of life, and keeping these levels in check could prevent age-related damage,” said study co-author Dr. Paul Timmers from the Usher Institute.
“We speculate that our findings on iron metabolism might also start to explain why very high levels of iron-rich red meat in the diet has been linked to age-related conditions such as heart disease.”
The study was focused on three major factors that influence biological aging: lifespan, longevity, and healthspan – years of life free of disease.
The rate at which the body declines, known as biological aging, is variable among individuals and is the primary driver of the most deadly diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
The comprehensive analysis was based on three public datasets. Collectively, the data represented the equivalent of 1.75 million lifespans.
The team pinpointed ten regions of the genome linked to long lifespan, longevity, and healthspan.
The study revealed that gene sets linked to iron were overrepresented in all three measures of aging. This finding was confirmed with a statistical method known as Mendelian randomization, which suggested that genes involved in metabolizing iron in the blood play a major role in promoting a long, healthy life.
Blood iron levels are affected by diet. Unusually high or low iron levels are associated with age-related conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, and a declining ability to fight infection.
The study authors explained that developing a drug that can mimic the influence of genetic variation on iron metabolism could be a future step to overcome some of the effects of aging, but also emphasized that further research is needed.
“Our ultimate aim is to discover how aging is regulated and find ways to increase health during aging,” said Dr. Joris Deelen from the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging.
‘The ten regions of the genome we have discovered that are linked to lifespan, healthspan and longevity are all exciting candidates for further studies.”
The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.