In many countries, human lifespan has nearly doubled since the 19th century. Back then, most of the people around the world were dying of infectious diseases. With advances in sanitation, accessibility to water, antibiotics and vaccines, the focus shifted towards chronic diseases: diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative pathologies. But the history of medicine is full of unexpected twists. With the recent appearance of a new infectious agent (SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19), many people seem to have forgotten the other age-related diseases we were talking about just a few months ago.
However, preventative healthcare is now more important than ever. The latest studies have demonstrated how some of the main risk factors that influence the development of complex diseases are also behind the risk of getting seriously ill or even dying if we get infected with SARS-CoV-2. And among them, the ageing process (together with already-present medical conditions) has emerged as the main risk factor in the context of COVID-19.
This is not something entirely surprising for researchers in the field. The correct functioning of our immune system is critical to avoid many diseases. As we age, it becomes less efficient to fight infections and chronic inflammation starts to ramp up, a process collectively known as immunosenescence. This also affects the likeliness that someone responds successfully to vaccination, which will be critical to end the current COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, treating immunosenescence with an anti-ageing drug can enhance the response to influenza vaccination.
Many lifestyle and environmental factors contribute to immunosenescence, including diet and exercise. That is the reason why epigenetic data, which captures these effects, is uniquely positioned to measure this over time. Epigenetics means that we can take personalised interventions and enhance our chances of surviving a COVID-19 infection when it appears.
One of these epigenetic biomarkers determines your biological age, the most accurate way to quantify how old someone is. It captures effects of immunosenescence, but also aspects of other hallmarks of ageing (such as how your telomeres are shortening or whether your stem cells are working properly). Knowing your biological age and tracking how it improves after certain lifestyle interventions can put you on the right path to prevent severe ill health from COVID-19 infection. Epigenetic biomarkers can also be useful to capture other COVID-19 risk factors, such as a disrupted metabolism (typically seen in people that end up developing type 2 diabetes) or exposure to the toxins found in the smoke from tobacco or air pollution.
Epigenetic testing is changing the game of preventative healthcare and is needed more than ever in COVID-19 times.
Dr. Daniel E. Martin-Herranz is the CSO and co-founder at Chronomics