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'Father Time' genes linked to longer lives

Four "Father Time" genes that help determine how fast we age have been uncovered by scientists. The ageing genes are switched on or off by environmental and lifestyle factors such as diet, and may be programmed from an early age.

Knowing how the genes are altered could pave the way to new generations of anti-ageing drugs, researchers believe.

Scientists already knew that "epigenetic" changes -- chemical alterations to DNA made by external factors in the environment -- are important to ageing.

The new research goes some way towards solving the riddle of how and when these effects occur.

Dr Jordana Bell, one of the study authors from King's College London, said: "We found that epigenetic changes associate with age-related traits that have previously been used to define biological age.

"We identified many age-related epigenetic changes, but four seemed to impact the rate of healthy ageing and potential longevity and we can use these findings as potential markers of ageing.


"These results can help understand the biological mechanisms underlying healthy ageing and age-related disease, and future work will explore how environmental effects can affect these epigenetic changes."

The scientists, whose work is reported in the online journal Public Library of Science Genetics, first looked for epigenetic changes in the DNA of 172 twins aged 32 to 80. Twins are often used in such studies because identical pairs share exactly the same genes, making it possible to tease apart genetic and environmental effects.

If one identical twin displays very different characteristics from the other it means the cause cannot be genetic.

Analysing the changes in relation to chronological age, the researchers identified 490 age-related epigenetic changes.

Matching these to specific age-related traits highlighted four genes displaying changes linked to cholesterol levels, lung function and maternal lifespan.

Further research showed that many of the epigenetic DNA alterations were also present in a group of 44 younger twins aged 22 to 61.