Cancer: Accelerated biological clock could increase cancer risk by 12%, study suggests

Dr Sara Kayat discusses ants that can smell cancer

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Bowel cancer, which affects both women and men, occurs when damaged cells start proliferating in the large bowel. Detected early, the disease boasts survival rates of 91 percent, but it is much harder to treat once it has spread to surrounding tissue. There are a plethora of risk factors for bowel cancer, but more have yet to be discovered. The findings of a new study suggest that an individual whose DNA is older than their chronological age could be at a greater risk of the disease.

A new report, published in Life, provides evidence that biological age may play a causal role in the increased risk of certain diseases.

The most promising biological age predictor to date is the epigenetic clock; a biochemical test that can be used to calculate age by measuring levels of methylation DNA.

In order to predict biological age, the clock applies a set of algorithms based on more than 6000 DNA profiles.

Scientists at the University of Bristol used four epigenetic clocks to measure biological ageing and their genetically predicted associations with a range of cancer types.

READ MORE: Cancer: 400,000 people may miss out on cancer diagnosis in the next 10 years – symptoms

Fernanda Morales-Berstein, a PhD Student in Molecular, Genetic and Lifecourse Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, led the study using a method called the Mendelian randomisation to mimic a randomised trial.

She said: “When an individual’s biological age is older than their chronological age, they are said to be experiencing epigenetic age acceleration.

“Epigenetic age acceleration, as measured by DNA methylation-based predictors of age called epigenetic clocks have been associated with several adverse health outcomes including cancer.

“But although epigenetic ageing can be used to predict cancer risk or detect the disease early, it is still unclear whether accelerated epigenetic ageing is a cause of cancer.”

The aim of the study was to evaluate the effectiveness of changes in epigenetic age as a cancer prevention strategy.

The findings found limited evidence that accelerated epigenetic age is causally linked to breast, lung, ovarian or prostate cancer.

But results were more striking for bowel cancer, where they showed a 12 percent increased risk of the disease with every additional year of biological age.

Rebecca Richmond, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in Molecular Epidemiology at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, University of Bristol, said: “Our work provides potentially relevant findings for public health.

“If epigenetic age acceleration is a causal mediator risk factor and bowel cancer, the clock may be a treatable intermediary for when targeting the underlying risk factors is not feasible or too difficult to accomplish, particularly in populations at high risk.

“More research is needed to support our findings and evaluate whether epigenetic age acceleration can be modified by lifestyle or clinical interventions.”

How to prevent bowel cancer

Bowel cancer prevention starts with getting regular check-ups, but more lifestyle measures can be adopted to prevent the disease.

According to Doctor Andrew Chan, associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and gastroenterologist, said: “Red and processed meat has been the dietary factor most consistently linked to [bowel] cancer.”

Further research has shown that adults who are more active lower their risk of bowel cancer by 30 percent to 40 percent, compared to those who lead a sedentary lifestyle.

Physical activity is also key to maintaining a healthy weight and preventing cancer, and experts advise keeping your waistline within 35 inches or less for women.

Finally, emphasising fibre in the diet by eating green vegetables and whole-grain, may also offer protection against the disease.

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