A new study says HIV infection has an “early and substantial” impact on the aging process.
The researchers found that this negative impact took hold within the first 2 to 3 years of infection. Even with treatment, those living with the virus could lose up to five years of life, 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 at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). It was published in iScience.
The study looked at blood samples from 102 men before infection and then 2 to 3 years after infection. He compared these results with blood samples taken from men over a similar period who had not acquired the virus.
The study specifically looked 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, encoding the functions they carry out.
Over time, as our cells regenerate, these long strands of DNA undergo a degradation process known as methylation. It means that the cells in our body are not working as well as when we were younger. We become more prone to possible diseases or frailties.
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What biologically constitutes “aging” is complicated. However, it is known that certain parts of the DNA are more prone to this process as the years go by. This is known as epigenetic aging.
In this study, people with HIV showed a “significant age acceleration” in these regions of DNA. These changes occurred, “just before infection and ending two to three years later, in the absence of highly active antiretroviral therapy. A similar acceleration in age was not observed in uninfected participants during the same time interval,” according to a press release about the study.
“Our access to rare and well-characterized samples allowed us to design this study in a way that leaves little doubt about the role of HIV in eliciting biosignatures of early aging,” said senior author Beth Jamieson, professor in the division of hematology. . and oncology at the Geffen School.
“Our long-term goal is to determine if we can use any of these signatures to predict whether an individual is at increased risk for specific age-related disease outcomes, thus exposing new targets for interventional therapy.”
The treatment partially reverses the impact of aging
This is not the first research looking at HIV and aging. In May, a study in The Lancet found that “persistent HIV inflammation” was linked to DNA aging.
In other words, the biological age of people with the virus appeared to be older than their actual age.
This was more marked in those who had been gone for some time before starting treatment. When treatment began, it took up to a couple of years for the impact to be partially reversed.
That study found the biological the age of people with infection should be between 1 and 3 years older than their current years.
rare contacted Dr. Jamieson at UCLA to ask her more about her new study. She said those diagnosed soon after infection and quickly placed on treatment probably had less to worry about.
“We haven’t directly tested the effects of early HIV treatment on epigenetic age, but taken together with the results of two of our other studies, I think early treatment is likely to stop epigenetic ageing.”
She believes this latest study is “another strong argument for early detection and treatment of HIV.”
“This study shows very clearly that HIV itself can change the rate of epigenetic aging, increasing a person’s long-term risk of having a shorter span of health.
“I also think that another important aspect of this work is that this study gives us a much clearer picture of the overall effects that HIV infection has on the body. We are in the process of following up to better understand the relationship between these epigenetic changes and the health outcomes experienced by people living with treated HIV.”
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Avoid age-related health problems with HIV
Given that people with HIV may be more prone to heart, kidney, and liver disease, what advice could Jamieson offer to help avoid tbis? Is it simply about adopting a healthy lifestyle and seeing your doctor regularly?
“One of the things we know is that our environment and our experiences affect epigenetics, so enhancing epigenetic aging is not beyond the realm of possibility,” he replied.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that people living with HIV should work with their doctors to make sure they are taking medications that keep the virus suppressed.
“Apart from that advice, we have to borrow from all the advice given to people living without HIV. That is doing exactly what you set out to do. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, quit smoking, exercise, and get regular checkups. We know that smoking has a huge impact on the epigenetic landscape, so smokers should be aware of that.”