Accelerated aging may be a cause of increased cancers in people under 55

April 16, 2024

An increase in cancers among people 55 years old and younger may be related to accelerated aging in recent generations, according to a study presented at a conference earlier this month.

Experts say years of research support this, though more questions remain to be answered.  

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis presented the findings from their study on accelerated aging earlier this month at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting.  

Ruiyi Tian, one of the authors of the study, and the other researchers hypothesized that an increase in biological age indicating accelerated aging may be behind the development of early-onset cancers seen in people under the age of 55.  

“Accumulating evidence suggests that the younger generations may be aging more swiftly than anticipated, likely due to earlier exposure to various risk factors and environmental insults. However, the impact of accelerated aging on early-onset cancer development remains unclear,” Tian said in her presentation.  

For their study, the researchers looked at the data of 148,724 people that was kept in the U.K. Biobank database, which collects in-depth genetic and lifestyle information on participants to help inform research on diseases.  

“We speculate that common pathways, such as chronic inflammation and cellular senescence, may link accelerated aging to the development of early-onset cancers,” Yin Cao, a Washington University translational cancer epidemiologist at Siteman Cancer Center under whose lab the study was conducted, told The Hill.  

Among all early-onset cancers, “cancers of the lung, gastrointestinal system, and uterus” were most strongly associated with accelerated aging in the study, according to Cao.  

The study did not identify specific factors that could be contributing to accelerated aging though Cao noted previous research has linked “environmental and lifestyle influences” to potential causes. This universe of factors could include such factors as increased air travel, more exposure to radiation and the presence of tiny “forever chemicals” that have been linked to health problems.

The full findings are expected to be published later this year. Though this research may be alarming, experts in aging say it backs up what has long been understood by those studying aging.

“It’s been known in the aging field for many years now that accelerated aging processes [are] predisposed to cancer,” said James Kirkland, Noaber Foundation professor of aging research at the Mayo Clinic.  

Conditions like diabetes, pre-eclampsia, obesity and undergoing cancer treatments have all been associated with younger populations developing an accelerated state of aging that leads to an accumulation of senescent cells which no longer divide but do not die. These cells secrete molecules that trigger inflammation and increase with age.  

“If you introduce senescent cells and accelerate fundamental aging processes in preclinical models, you accelerate development of every kind of cancer there is. At least in most models,” Kirkland said.  

In the U.K. where the data was sourced from, average life expectancy has generally been on an upward trend since the 1980s, though a decline was observed from 2020 to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as life expectancy has risen, Kirkland noted an opposing trend has also come about.  

“So, in the last few years, there’s been a three-year increase in median lifespan in the United Kingdom. There’s been a three-year decrease in what we call healthspan. That is the period of life during which you’re healthy, free, independent — you know — free of pain, disability, etc. and cognitive impairment.”  

So, while the association between accelerated aging and cancers has long been known, what could be causing newer generations to experience higher rates of accelerated aging is what researchers are focused on discovering.   

Cao’s study indicated that people born beginning in 1965 had a 17 percent higher risk of accelerated aging than the generation born between 1950 and 1954.  

Globally, fundamental markers of aging are being observed in younger generations despite lower rates of smoking and even when factors like obesity are accounted for, said Kirkland. This suggests there may be an environmental factor yet to be determined.  

He noted that the reverse phenomenon was observed in the 1950s when pollution controls came into effect, with a delay in cancers observed in this period. Kirkland cited increased air travel, more radiation exposure and PFAS as potential causes of accelerated aging that should be looked further into.  

Disparities between chronological and biological age go in both directions according to Kirkland. Some people display biomarkers that suggest a biological age lower than their actual age like those who live in so-called Blue Zones, parts of the world where populations experience higher rates of increased longevity.

Known Blue Zones include parts of world like Sardinia and Okinawa where residents routinely live past 100. Though separated by thousands of miles, residents in Blue Zones often share similar habits like diets that focus on consuming whole foods, a strong sense of community and regular physical activity.

Kirkland heads the Translational Geroscience Network, a research collaboration with a focus on fundamental mechanisms of aging and potential clinical interventions to prevent, delay or treat age-related diseases. There are over 80 ongoing clinical trials being done through this collaboration.  

As more is learned about accelerated biological aging, Kirkland emphasized it’s still too early to make any definite conclusions.  

“Just knowing biological age alone — as was talked about in this paper or this presentation — is not enough. That’s helpful but if you can’t do anything about it … and I see this in patients, create a lot of anxiety,” he said.

“There is serious academic work going on with [Food and Drug Administration] and regulated clinical trials that are funded by various branches of the government or reputable organizations like the Alzheimer’s Foundation or Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. Those trials are underway. We don’t know the answers yet.”