When Does Your Brain Start Aging?
Some people think the brain aging starts after 65. The onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of age-related dementia that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, usually occurs after age 65. However, decades of diligent work on this disorder have not resulted in any effective treatment. Could it be that we diagnose and treat brain aging too late? Do our brains begin to age long before any visible signs can be detected?
A recent study found that people in middle age, who have older biological age, can have signs of advanced brain aging, diminished sensory-motor functions, older appearances, and more pessimistic perceptions of aging. How should we use this new information in our battle with brain aging? Supertrends interviewed Maxwell Elliott, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist at Duke University and the first author of this research paper.
The importance of measuring brain aging
Elliott’s research interest is in neuroscience, especially using neuroimaging to understand brain function. He is very excited about new developments in using MRI to measure brain aging. In his view, if we can precisely measure the brain images by doing a series of MRIs, we will be able to tell whether the brain has aged and how quickly it aged. This can also serve as an indicator for whether a certain intervention (either treatments or lifestyle interventions) has worked for brain aging. According to Elliott, some researchers may be going about it the wrong way by rushing into treatment studies without setting up a reliable measuring method.
“We can’t only do studies where we just wait until someone gets dementia or dies. It takes too long, and it can only involve old people. This is not how we are going to figure out a way to really treat aging,” Elliott told Supertrends.
The pace of aging
Time is fair to everyone. This truism seems to apply to most people because we all age chronologically at the same pace. However, if we look at biological age, time does not affect everyone equally. Biological age determines the pace at which the functions of our organs deteriorate. Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors can all have an impact on our biological age. It is common for people of the same chronological age to have different biological ages.
Maxwell Elliott and his colleagues at Duke University put together data from a set of 19 biomarkers covering the functions of the cardiovascular, metabolic, renal, immune, dental, and pulmonary systems to produce an index termed the “Pace of Aging (PoA)”. The researchers followed more than 1,000 participants born between 1972 and 1973, collecting data at ages 26, 32, 38, and 45 to calculate each participant’s personal PoA. Unsurprisingly, the participants aged at different pace biologically, with the slowest PoA being 0.40 biological years per chronological year and the fastest PoA measured as 2.44 biological years per chronological year.
The most interesting finding is the associations between PoA and physical and psychological outcomes of aging. Researchers found that at age 45, participants with faster PoA had increased cognitive difficulties, signs of advanced brain aging, and reduced sensory-motor functions. Participants with older biological age also looked and felt older. This group of participants endorsed sentiments such as “things keep getting worse and I get older” and “I am not as happy now as I was when I was younger”.
The findings of Elliott and his colleagues clearly showed that at the age of 45, people with more advanced biological ages were already displaying signs of brain aging and functional difficulties.
PoA for everyone
It took two decades for researchers at Duke University to come up with the PoA results. “Nobody wants to wait for two decades to learn how fast they are aging and figure out what to do about it,” Elliott admitted.
“The next direction for this research is to use DNA methylation from one blood draw to predict your pace of aging. We are trying to turn it into a PCR test and hoping to get it to a price of US$100 or less.”
“The main advantage of our research is that it is a longitudinal study over 20 years. Many other studies are not measuring people over a long period but measuring people of different ages. We will continue to do our 19 biomarker PoA measurements. Our goal is to continue to make this test more accurate and accessible.” Elliott feels that the PoA method is very promising. The Duke scientists are aiming to make the “US$100 PoA blood test” into a commercial product that will initially be available to researchers in their anti-aging intervention studies. After further validation, The PoA will hopefully be available more broadly.
We got to go earlier in life
Returning to the question of the timing of brain aging, Elliott believes that studies on brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases should shift their focus to a much earlier stage of life. “A lot of our studies on brain aging focus on people who are already 75 years old, who already have accumulated massive age-related changes to their brain that put them at risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. From a neuroscience and anti-aging perspective, we have to study people before these major changes happen. We have got to go back to earlier in life, before you’ve already accumulated age-related declines. That’s where my interest is, which is rolling back to younger people to find the earliest signs of accelerated brain aging.”
Elliott and his colleagues concluded in their study that people in their midlife could already show signs of early brain aging, and that those people are also most likely to benefit from science-based interventions.
Click here to learn more about what you can do to prevent aging.