Genome-wide age-related DNA methylation changes in blood and other tissues relate to histone modification, expression and cancer

Carcinogenesis. 2014 Feb;35(2):356-64. doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgt391. Epub 2013 Nov 28.


Epigenetic marks are extensively altered in cancer but may also change in normal tissues with age, which is the primary risk factor for most cancers. We conducted an epigenome-wide study to identify age-related methylation sites and examine their relationship to cancer and other underlying epigenetic marks. We analyzed 1006 blood DNA samples of women aged 35-76 years from the Sister Study and found that 7694 (28%) of the 27 578 CpGs assayed were associated with age (false discovery rate, q < 0.05). Using independent data sets, we confirmed 749 'high-confidence' age-related CpG (arCpGs) sites in normal blood. Based on The Cancer Genome Atlas data, we show that these age-related changes are largely concordant in a broad variety of normal tissues and that a significantly higher (71-91%, P < 10(-74)) than expected proportion of increasingly methylated arCpGs (IM-arCpGs) were overmethylated in a wide variety of tumor types. IM-arCpGs sites occurred almost exclusively at CpG islands and were disproportionately marked with the repressive H3K27me3 histone modification (P < 1 × 10(-) (50)). Genes containing these IM-arCpG sites were highly enriched for developmental and signaling pathways (P < 10(-) (10)). Our findings suggest that as cells acquire methylation at age-related sites, they have a lower threshold for malignant transformation that may explain in part the increase in cancer incidence with age.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • CpG Islands / genetics*
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Genome, Human*
  • Histones / chemistry*
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Prognosis
  • Prospective Studies


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Histones