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Heart-healthy behaviors may help reverse rapid cell aging, study shows

Physical activity is one of the factors that contributes to heart health. Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery/Pexels
1 of 2 | Physical activity is one of the factors that contributes to heart health. Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery/Pexels

NEW YORK, May 29 (UPI) -- Heart-healthy actions could counteract a genetic predisposition to swift aging of the body's cells, a new study suggests.

The study was published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

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Analyzing data from more than 5,000 adults who averaged 56 years old, researchers demonstrated that lifestyle factors such as nutrition and exercise were associated with a younger biological age.

"Our findings suggest that individuals with rapid cell aging due to higher genetic risk may offset the increased burden of cardiovascular disease by managing their heart disease risk factors and adopting heart-healthy behaviors," said Jiantao Ma, a senior study author.

Investigators explored how DNA methylation, a chemical modification process that regulates gene expression -- characteristics or effects attributed to a particular gene -- can influence cell aging and mitigate the risk of heart disease and stroke, death from either medical condition, or death from any cause.

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"Our research objective was to investigate whether DNA methylation may be a mechanism by which cardiovascular health factors affect risk of cardiovascular disease and overall death rate," said Ma, an assistant professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

DNA methylation levels are the most promising biomarker to estimate biological age. To some extent, an individual's genetic makeup determines biological age, but lifestyle factors and stress also have an impact, researchers said.

Investigators reviewed health data for 5,682 adults, 56% of them women, enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study -- an ongoing, large, multigenerational research project aimed at identifying heart disease risk factors.

Based on interviews, physical exams and laboratory tests, researchers employed the American Heart Association's Life's Essential 8 tool to evaluate all participants.

The tool scores cardiovascular health between 0 and 100, with 100 being the best, by using a composite of behavioral measures -- dietary intake, physical activity, hours slept per night and smoking status -- and clinical measurements -- body mass index, cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.

Researchers performed other assessments by using four tools that estimate biological age based on DNA methylation and a fifth tool that evaluates a person's genetic tendency toward accelerated biological aging.

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The study tracked participants between 11 and 14 years for new-onset cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular death or death from any cause.

Each 13-point increase in an individual's Life's Essential 8 score reduced the risk of developing first-time cardiovascular disease by about 35%. It decreased the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 36% and lowered the risk of death from any cause by 29%.

In participants with a genetic risk profile that increased the likelihood of accelerated biological age, the Life's Essential 8 score had a more significant impact on outcomes potentially via DNA methylation. This process accounted for a 39% reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular death and a 78% decrease in risk of all-cause mortality.

Overall, researchers estimated that about 20% of the association between Life's Essential 8 scores and cardiovascular outcomes stemmed from the impact of cardiovascular health factors on DNA methylation. In contrast, for participants at higher genetic risk, the association approached 40%.

The concept of biological aging -- a complex process of gradual decline in the body's functions -- has intrigued physicians and scientists for many years, said Dr. Jacqueline Hollywood, a cardiologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J. She was not involved in the study.

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"It's a natural phenomenon that affects all living organisms, leading to an increased risk of diseases and ultimately, death," Hollywood said, adding that "the exact mechanisms of biological aging have been a mystery and are under investigation."

However, she pointed out that "the heart is the engine of the body, and its health plays a crucial role in the aging process. Maintaining good heart health can offer numerous benefits that can slow down aging and improve the quality of life in older adults."

For example, Hollywood said that with efficient pumping, a healthy heart ensures proper blood circulation that delivers vital oxygen and nutrients to cells, delaying age-related decline.

Staving off chronic inflammation also is paramount because it's a significant contributor to aging. That's why Hollywood recommended limiting processed foods, which often contain high levels of sugar, unhealthy fats and artificial additives that can trigger chronic inflammation linked to heart problems, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other common health issues in older adults.

"What this study suggests is that our cells -- the microscopic foundation of our bodies -- may be responding to these heart disease risk factors and directly or indirectly changing how they age," said Dr. David Min, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Dartmouth Health in Lebanon, N.H.

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"It will be interesting to see if we are able to 'make ourselves younger' by positively changing how our cells age using tools like Life's Essential 8 and modification of those risk factors," Min said.

The fact that women represented more than 50% of participants enabled investigators to assess an understudied group, said Dr. Nishant Shah, a cardiologist at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C.

He added that "patients and providers should feel free to bring up the topic of heart-healthy living during health care visits to ensure all is being done to optimize risk."

However, Dr. Megan Kamath, a cardiologist at UCLA Health in Los Angeles, said the study included a small group of patients and had a high rate of attrition with incomplete data, so more research will be necessary in a larger group to validate these findings.

"I am excited to see that our lifestyle interventions can promote changes at the cellular level, which would be an exciting new era of research to come in the future," said Dr. Paul Leis, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.

"Reversing cell aging can potentially decrease the risk of other diseases, as well."

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