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May 28, 2014 03:00 PM EDT

Cigarette Smoke, Other Toxins Can Make People Older Than Their Years

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Exposure to certain toxins may make people older than their years, according to a recent study.

Researchers found that harmful substances in the environment, chemicals such as benzene, cigarette smoke, and even stress can age the person in terms of biological age.

"The rate of physiologic, or molecular, aging differs between individuals in part because of exposure to 'gerontogens', i.e., environmental factors that affect aging," Norman Sharpless from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said in a statemenr. "We believe just as an understanding of carcinogens has informed cancer biology, so will an understanding of gerontogens benefit the study of aging. By identifying and avoiding gerontogens, we will be able to influence aging and life expectancy at a public health level."

Researchers said that in the future blood tests evaluating biomarkers of molecular age might be used to understand differences amongst individuals in aging rates. They might also measure key pathways involved in the process of cellular senescence or chemical modifications to DNA. In fact, Sharpless said in the interest of full disclosure that he has founded a company to commercialize molecular tests of aging.

Sharpless said that from a public health perspective, cigarette smoke is likely the most important gerontogen. They are linked with cancers but also with atherosclerosis, pulmonary fibrosis, and other diseases associated with age. UV radiation from the sun makes people age biologically too. Sharpless and his colleagues recently showed that chemotherapy treatment is also a strong gerontogen. With the aid of a mouse model that they developed, his team is prepared to study these gerontogens and others in much greater detail.

The researchers call for a concerted effort to understand the clinical uses for molecular tests of aging as well as the epidemiology of accelerated aging.

"We believe the comparison of molecular markers of aging to clinical outcomes should begin in earnest," Sharpless said.

The findings were recently published in the Cell Press journal Trends in Molecular Medicine.

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