A new study says HIV infection has an “early and substantial” impact on the aging process.
The researchers found this negative impact took hold within the first 2-3 years of infection. Even on 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 looked at blood samples from 102 men before infection, and then 2-3 years after infection. It compared these results with blood samples taken from men over a similar period who had not acquired 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, coding the functions they carry out.
Over time, as our cells regenerate, these long chains of DNA undergo a process of degradation, known as methylation. It means the cells in our body don’t function as well as when we’re younger. We become more prone to potential diseases or frailties.
What biologically constitutes “aging” is complicated. However, it’s known that certain parts of DNA are more prone to this process as the years pass. This is known as epigenetic aging.
In this study, people with HIV showed “significant age acceleration” in these DNA regions. These changes took place, “just before infection and ending two to three years after, in the absence of highly active antiretroviral treatment. Similar age acceleration was not seen in the non-infected participants over the same time interval,” according to 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 the role of HIV in eliciting biological signatures of early aging,” said senior author Beth Jamieson, a professor in the division of hematology and oncology at the Geffen School.
“Our long-term goal is to determine whether we can use any of these signatures to predict whether an individual is at increased risk for specific aging-related disease outcomes, thus exposing new targets for intervention therapeutics.”
Treatment partly reverses the aging impact
This is not the first research to look 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 those with the virus appeared to be older than their actual age.
This was most marked in those that had gone for some time before starting treatment. When treatment commenced, it took up to a couple of years for the impact to be partially reversed.
That study found the biological age of those with infection to be between 1-3 years older than their actual age.
Queerty reached out to Dr. Jamieson at UCLA to ask her some more about her new study. She said those diagnosed soon after infection and placed quickly on to treatment likely had less to worry about.
“We haven’t directly tested the effects of early treatment for HIV on epigenetic age, but taken together with the results of two of our other studies, I do believe that early treatment is likely to arrest epigenetic aging.”
She believes this latest study is “another strong argument for the early detection of, and treatment for, HIV.”
“This study demonstrates very clearly that HIV itself can change the rate of epigenetic aging, increasing a person’s long-term risk for a shorter health span.
“I also think another important aspect of this work is 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 this up to better understand the relationship between these epigenetic changes and the health outcomes experienced by people living with treated HIV.”
Avoiding age-related health problems with HIV
As HIV-positive people may be more prone to heart, kidney and liver disease, what advice might Jamieson offer to help avoid tbis? Is it simply a matter of adopting a healthy lifestyle and checking in regularly with your clinician?
“One of the things we know is that our environment and experiences do affect epigenetics, so improving epigenetic aging is not out of the realm of possibility,” she replied.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that people living with HIV should work with their clinicians to ensure they are on medications that keep the virus suppressed.
“Other than that advice, we have to borrow from all the advice given to people living without HIV. That is to do exactly what you proposed. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, stop smoking, exercise and have regular checkups. We know smoking has a large impact on the epigenetic landscape so smokers might want to take that into consideration.”