Quantification of the pace of biological aging in humans through a blood test, the DunedinPoAm DNA methylation algorithm

Elife. 2020 May 5;9:e54870. doi: 10.7554/eLife.54870.


Biological aging is the gradual, progressive decline in system integrity that occurs with advancing chronological age, causing morbidity and disability. Measurements of the pace of aging are needed as surrogate endpoints in trials of therapies designed to prevent disease by slowing biological aging. We report a blood-DNA-methylation measure that is sensitive to variation in pace of biological aging among individuals born the same year. We first modeled change-over-time in 18 biomarkers tracking organ-system integrity across 12 years of follow-up in n = 954 members of the Dunedin Study born in 1972-1973. Rates of change in each biomarker over ages 26-38 years were composited to form a measure of aging-related decline, termed Pace-of-Aging. Elastic-net regression was used to develop a DNA-methylation predictor of Pace-of-Aging, called DunedinPoAm for Dunedin(P)ace(o)f(A)ging(m)ethylation. Validation analysis in cohort studies and the CALERIE trial provide proof-of-principle for DunedinPoAm as a single-time-point measure of a person's pace of biological aging.

Keywords: DNA methylation; aging; biological aging; epidemiology; epigenetic; global health; human; life-course.

Plain language summary

People’s bodies age at different rates. Age-related biological changes that increase the risk of disease and disability progress rapidly in some people. In others, these processes occur at a slower pace, allowing those individuals to live longer, healthier lives. This observation has led scientists to try to develop therapies that slow aging. The hope is that such treatments could prevent or delay diseases like heart disease or dementia, for which older age is the leading risk factor. Studies in animals have identified treatments that extend the creatures’ lives and slow age-related disease. But testing these treatments in humans is challenging. Our lives are much longer than the worms, flies or mice used in the experiments. Scientists would have to follow human study participants for decades to detect delays in disease onset or an extension of their lives. An alternative approach is to try to develop a test that measures the pace of aging, or essentially “a speedometer for aging”. This would allow scientists to more quickly determine if treatments slow the aging process. Now, Belsky et al. show a blood test designed to measure the pace of aging predicts which people are at increased risk of poor health, chronic disease and an earlier death. First, data about chemical changes to an individual’s DNA, called DNA methylation, were analyzed from white blood cell samples collected from 954 people in a long-term health study known as “The Dunedin Study”. Using the data, Belsky et al. then developed an algorithm – named “DunedinPoAm” – that identified people with an accelerated or slowed pace of aging based on a single blood test. Next, they used the algorithm on samples from participants in three other long-term studies. This verified that those people the algorithm identified as aging faster had a greater risk of poor health, developing chronic diseases or dying earlier. Similarly, those identified as aging more slowly performed better on tests of balance, strength, walking speed and mental ability, and they also looked younger to trained raters. Additionally, Belsky et al. used the test on participants in a randomized trial testing whether restricting calories had potential to extend healthy lifespan. The results suggested that the calorie restriction could counter the effects of an accelerated pace of aging. The test developed by Belsky et al. may provide an alternate way of measuring whether age-slowing treatments work. This would allow faster testing of treatments that can extend the healthy lifespan of humans. The test may also help identify individuals with accelerated aging. This might help public health officials test whether policies or programs can help people lead longer, healthier lives.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / blood*
  • Aging / physiology
  • Algorithms
  • Chronic Disease / epidemiology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / physiopathology
  • DNA Methylation / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Factors