A new study says HIV infection has an “early and substantial” impact on the aging process.
The researchers found that this negative impact manifested itself within the first 2-3 years after infection. Even with treatment, those living with the virus could lose up to five years of their lifespan, they warn.
It helps explain why some people with HIV are more prone to heart disease, cancer, and other age-related problems.
The study was conducted by scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). It is published in iScience.
The study looked at blood samples from 102 men before infection and then 2-3 years after infection. It compared these results to blood samples taken over a similar period of time from men who had not received the virus.
The study looked specifically at changes at the DNA level.
DNA and epigenetic aging
Long chains of proteins make up the DNA found in all human cells. DNA basically programs your cells and encodes the functions they perform.
Over time, as our cells regenerate, these long DNA chains undergo a process of degradation known as methylation. It means that the cells in our body don’t function as well as when we are younger. We become more susceptible to possible illnesses or weaknesses.
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What biological “aging” is is complicated. However, it is known that certain parts of DNA become more susceptible to this process with age. This is known as epigenetic aging.
In this study, people with HIV showed “significant age acceleration” in these regions of DNA. These changes occurred “just before infection and ended two to three years afterward, in the absence of highly active antiretroviral therapy. A similar age acceleration was not seen in the uninfected participants over the same time interval,” said a press release about the study.
“Our access to rare, well-characterized samples allowed us to design this study in a way that leaves little doubt about HIV’s role in triggering biological features of early aging,” said senior author Beth Jamieson, a professor at the hematology department. and oncology at the Geffen School.
“Our long-term goal is to determine whether we can use any of these signatures to predict whether a person is at increased risk for specific aging-related disease outcomes, uncovering new targets for therapeutic interventions.”
Treatment partially reverses the aging impact
This is not the first study on HIV and aging. In May, a study in the Lancet found that “ongoing HIV inflammation” was linked to DNA aging.
In other words, the biological age of those with the virus turned out to be older than their actual age.
This was most evident in those who had disappeared for some time before starting treatment. When treatment started, it took up to a few years for the impact to partially reverse.
That study found the biological age of those with infection between 1-3 years older than their factual age.
Queerty got in touch with dr. Jamieson from UCLA to ask her a bit more about her new study. She said those who were diagnosed shortly after the infection and treated promptly were likely to have less to worry about.
“We have not directly tested the effects of early treatment of HIV on epigenetic age, but together with the results of two of our other studies, I believe that early treatment is likely to halt epigenetic aging.”
She believes this latest study is “another strong case for early detection and treatment of HIV.”
“This study shows very clearly that HIV itself can alter the rate of epigenetic aging, increasing a person’s long-term risk for a shorter health span.
“I also think that another important aspect of this work is that this study gives us a much clearer picture of the general effects that HIV infection has on the body. We are monitoring this to better understand the relationship between these epigenetic changes and the health outcomes of people with treated HIV.”
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Avoiding age-related health problems with HIV
Since HIV-positive people may be more prone to heart, kidney and liver disease, what advice could Jamieson give to help prevent TB? Is it just a matter of adopting a healthy lifestyle and checking in with your doctor regularly?
“One of the things we know is that our environment and experiences influence epigenetics, so improving epigenetic aging is not out of the question,” she replied.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that people living with HIV need to work with their clinicians to make sure they are taking drugs that suppress the virus.
“Other than that advice, we have to borrow from all the advice that is being given to people living without HIV. That’s exactly what you suggested. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, stop smoking, exercise and get checked regularly. We know that smoking has a big impact on the epigenetic landscape, so smokers may want to take that into account.”