Few things are more important to us than our health, and as we age, we tend to expect that our health will naturally deteriorate. But what if that wasn’t necessarily a given?
Scientists are beginning to believe that epigenetics is crucial to the aging process and controls how we age as well as what diseases or disorders we’ll develop along the way. This has focused attention on the epigenome and its critical role in the aging process.
In this article:
- The Master Blueprint
- Understanding the Instructions
- How the Epigenome Works
- DNA Methylation
- Epigenetics and Aging
- What Affects the Epigenome?
- The Example of Diabetes
- What It All Means
Epigenome and Aging
What is an epigenome? The set of instructions encoded into our genes that tells cells what to do and not do. It controls everything, from the color of our eyes to our height, to where we store fat.
The Master Blueprint
You can think of your genome as a master blueprint of a building that has instructions about the basic foundation and construction and the day-to-day running of the system via electrics, plumbing, etc. It has instructions that were used in the womb and in your childhood when you were “being built,” and it also contains instructions that can control the various systems of the body throughout your life.
Understanding the Instructions
For a blueprint to be useful in building, you need to be able to interpret the instructions and apply changes where necessary but still in accordance with the overall vision of the blueprint. The same is true of your genome.
The epigenome is like a set of clarifying instructions applied on top of the genome that interprets that genome, carries out the plan, and modifies the plan when necessary.
Our DNA is made up of about 3 billion base pairs of molecules carrying all the key instructions for every function of every cell in our bodies. The epigenomes are the molecules and proteins that attach to our DNA and make those functions possible.
They essentially turn our genes on or off, controlling when and how they send messages to the cells. They don’t change our DNA, but they do modify the way our DNA functions by controlling the way cells understand DNA instructions.
How the Epigenome Works
An epigenome works by adding a chemical compound onto a genome to regulate it. The chemical compound isn’t part of the genes or the DNA: it simply attaches to the DNA.
We have billions of different cell types, each designed for a specific function, and it’s crucial that they get the right messages. When the cells don’t get their messages or don’t follow the right ones, we suffer physically.
What is DNA methylation? The addition of a methyl group to DNA, modifying DNA expression and function
The chemicals that control our genome and the way our genes communicate with cells through something called DNA methylation.
Methyl groups are simply small groups of chemicals naturally produced by our body and attach to our DNA, blocking the signaling proteins that would normally send a message from that gene. Once the methyl group has done its job, it leaves a mark so that cells know which genes have been turned off.
We are able to measure these markers and tell when DNA methylation has turned abnormal. And it turns out that abnormal cycles of DNA methylation have a lot to do with aging and the development of cancer, diabetes, mental illness, and autoimmune disease.
Epigenetics and Aging
We all know, and sometimes even fear, the process of aging. It’s typically marked by a decline in health, strength, and resistance to disease.
We still don’t fully understand when this decline starts precisely or why, but we do know that changes in the way our DNA communicates have a lot to do with it.
As certain genes stop signaling properly to the cells, usually due to an abnormal methylation pattern, our cellular functions also become dysregulated. The key to aging better lies in epigenetics and learning how to stop DNA methylation from blocking the function of genes that protect us from disease and decline.
What Affects the Epigenome?
The chemicals that regulate the way our genome is expressed and interpreted by cells are affected by many things. What we eat, how we live, what we drink or smoke, and the environmental toxins around us all change our epigenetic markers. Our epigenetics are even influenced by things completely out of our control.
But understanding more about gene expression offers hope that we can control the aging process.
The Example of Diabetes
We all know that certain lifestyle choices seem to make it more likely a person will develop type 2 diabetes. But while lifestyle choices are critically important, we now know there are epigenetic factors at work.
For example, people born to mothers who were malnourished during their pregnancy are far more likely to develop diabetes. Why is this?
As the fetus developed in the malnourished mother, her body sent chemical messengers to the fetus’ genome, turning off certain genes that would ordinarily speed up metabolism and make the body less sensitive to sugar. These changes would be good things under the right circumstances.
A baby born into a famine situation with a slower metabolism and a predisposition to hyper-respond to sugar has a much better chance of surviving on less food than normal.
The problem comes when that same baby grows with plenty of food.
At that point, the slow metabolism and poor sugar regulation make it more likely that the child will eventually develop diabetes. Aging only increases the risk.
Understanding all this presents us with an opportunity to develop therapies that can influence the epigenome chemical instructions and allow us to turn on and off the genes that predispose us to diabetes.
What It All Means
The bottom line is that those chemical markers that epigenetics studies hold the key to controlling the way our genes express themselves. Gene expression regulates how quickly we age, how well we age, and what diseases we develop along the way.
If we can prevent certain genes from expression and turn back on some that have been blocked, we can control the aging process not with drugs that mask symptoms but by changing things on a fundamental cellular level.
Epigenetics is an exciting field with the potential to treat just about every disease and disorder we face. To learn more about epigenetics, what you can do to protect your genome, and the latest news from the field, visit TruDiagnostic regularly.
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