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Pollution accelerates aging on a cellular level

Research has shown that pollution can lead to disease and premature death as well as early signs of aging, such as wrinkles and age spots. When a team of researchers at Hasselt University set out to investigate whether this accelerated aging can be detected in the cells of healthy individuals, they discovered the answer was not simple.

Pollutant exposure is known to affect two hallmarks of aging in people – mitochondrial DNA content and telomere length.

Mitochondria are extremely important in supplying cells with energy that they can use. Some pollutants cause mitochondria to release more reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are highly charged particles that can damage DNA, fats, and proteins. As the ROS damage affects the functioning of the mitochondria, even more ROS are produced.

Telomeres are the DNA-protein caps on the ends of chromosomes that allow them to continue dividing. Shorter telomeres are characteristic of aging, while abnormally long telomeres are often seen in cancer cells.

The Hasselt research team, led by Michelle Plusquin, set out to determine if pollutants could affect mitochondrial DNA content or telomere length in people.

The investigation was focused on various pollutants in blood and urine samples from 175 adults who were participating in the Flemish Environment and Health Study. The researchers assessed mitochondrial DNA content and telomere length from the cells in blood samples. The team also used multipollutant models to analyze all of the pollutants simultaneously.

The study revealed that people with higher levels of urinary copper and serum perfluorohexane sulfonic acid had decreased mitochondrial DNA content and shorter telomeres. On the other hand, some pollutants were associated with either higher mitochondrial DNA content or longer telomeres.

The findings suggest that pollutants could impact molecular hallmarks of aging. According to the study authors, more research is needed to determine the mechanism and biological effects.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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