Methylation And Age: How Old Are You, Really?

innocence-and-experienceHave you noticed that medicine is called a practice? Maybe that’s because everybody isn’t the same. What works for you possibly won’t work for your neighbor, despite that the same doctor prescribes the same medicines for the same reason in the same doses for both of you. The age of individualized medicine is upon us, a time when what goes into your body, whether food or medication or supplement, will be geared toward your individuality. One size will not fit all. This makes sense—finally, as it becomes increasingly evident that our bodies don’t do things at the same rate…like age. Some of us age gracefully; others just get old. Aging can be managed. Getting old can strike out of nowhere, but some scientists think it’s controllable. Attitude matters.

Biologically, our clocks tick at a different rhythm. Once in a while a 70-year-old looks 50; often it’s the reverse. Science has tried to identify markers that quantify the actual rate of aging. First, it looked at telomeres, those aglet-like caps at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with age. (Aglets are the plastic sheaths at the ends of shoelaces that keep them from raveling.)  Telomeres might be part of the picture, but are not the sole influence on aging. DNA methylation is now a target of exploration, where researchers are examining the methylome, the whole set of methylation markers across the genome that almost predictably changes over time. This inquiry is expected to determine a person’s biological age from a single drop of blood. A methylation site gets fuzzier as people age, and the differences between the young and the old become more clearly defined.

Much of what extended life writers and websites would have us believe is bogus. If not backed by hard science, discount most of what you read.  On the other hand, the measurement of human age from recognized molecular profiles has merit, especially in preventing and treating disease and possibly even in the extension of human life. The process of methylation can be inhibited or hastened, depending on what we do and what we swallow.

What is methylation?

Methylation is a biological process in which a methyl group (CH3) is added to one of the amino acids in DNA. The result can suppress harmful activity and help to ensure proper DNA replication by replacing a single hydrogen atom with the whole group. Abnormalities in this process are linked to genetic defects. If it happens to a gene that controls cell division, for example, cell division may be uncontrolled and result in cancer. Methylation is typically brought about by vitamin B12-dependent enzymes, such as methionine synthase, which uses methylcobalamin as a co-factor to turn homocysteine back into methionine and to prevent some forms of anemia. Recently, researchers at the U of CA, San Diego School of Medicine measured more than 485,000 genome-wide markers of methylation in the blood of 656 people, aged from 19 to 101, noting that the process weakens with age, and that different organs within the same body methylate at different rates and efficacies (Hannum, 2012).  The hypomethylation of old age is far separated from the normal methylation of neonates and teenagers. This phenomenon can be seen in a parallel comparison of like sectors of the genome Heyna, 2012). The implications are that lifestyle modifications can prolong the methylation ability of the genome, thus promoting longevity and health.

DNA?

This is the stuff that determines the makeup of all living cells. It consists of two long strands of compounds that are the building blocks of the nucleic acids that eventually control cellular function and heredity. The two strands coil around each other in what is called a double helix, which is a spiral that resembles that of a school notebook. Imagine a pencil inserted into the notebook’s spiral backbone. That pencil represents a material called histone, which forms a spool around which the DNA can wrap itself. It sort of helps to keep the spirals from getting kinked, like what happened to the old slinky you had to throw away. Histones are important because they keep the DNA under control by compacting it. Otherwise, the strand would be about six feet long. It’s tantamount to the modern telephone cords that coil to save space on the floor. Old-fashioned cords were straight, uncoiled wires that always got in the way of whatever you wanted to do. Methylation keeps histones in good shape. It is felt that histones influence the signaling pathways that may extend longevity (Han, 2012). If so, the inference is simple—keep histones well, live longer, or at least live healthier.

How Do I Do This?

The answer is too simple to ignore, but often is. For some obscure reason, humans look for the complicated way of doing things. Diet is an important element of genome methylation; maybe even paramount in the support of the process. Practically nothing is easier to implement, but keep in mind that all food is not created equal. Grass-fed meat, for example, is lower in total fat than grain-fed. A sirloin from a grass-fed steer has about half the fat of a grain-fed steer. It also contains conjugated linoleic acid, an omega-3 fat found in the chloroplasts of grass that may play a role in weight management (Whigham, 2007) and protect against some cancers (Ip, Aug, 1994) (Ip, Mar, 1994). Pastured hens lay eggs with goodly amounts of n-3 fats in contrast to factory-raised. Simply, the vitamin B12 from animal products supplies a methyl molecule.

Eating raw nuts and seeds gets you about 6 grams of protein an ounce, plus the polyunsaturated fats you need to fight inflammation and to prevent cardiovascular issues. Adding green leafy vegetables and legumes supplies additional folate, which is a noteworthy methyl donor. Supplementation with B12 and folinic acid or methyltetrahydrofolate is not out of place, and is a prudent move if one’s diet is less than wholesome. The promise of long-term health, well-being and extended life might be more real than we imagined. And it requires little effort.

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