How Well Are You Aging? This Blood Test May Tell You

A woman's face as she ages
(Image credit: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock)

Your age may really just be a number: How well you're aging may be better revealed by a pattern of chemicals found in your blood than by that number. Indeed, a new study finds that certain "biomarker signatures" in the blood can signal people's risk of later developing some age-related health conditions.

A person's chronological age doesn't necessarily indicate their overall health or their risk for certain conditions. These biomarker signatures, by comparison, may offer better insight into a person's risk of age-related diseases and death over an 8-year period, the study found.

"These signatures depict differences in how people age, and they show promise in predicting healthy aging, changes in cognitive and physical function, survival and age-related diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer," the researchers wrote in the study, published today (Jan. 6) in the journal Aging Cell. [7 Ways the Mind and Body Change with Age]

"We can now detect and measure thousands of biomarkers from a small amount of blood, with the idea of eventually being able to predict who is at risk of a wide range of diseases, long before any clinical signs become apparent," senior study author Dr. Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

In the study, the researchers measured the levels of 19 biomarkers in the blood samples of more than 4,700 people who were enrolled in an ongoing international research project called the Long Life Family Study. The people in the study ranged in age from 30 to 110.

The biomarkers included in the study were linked to many functions in the body, including those of the immune system, the endocrine system and the kidneys, and metabolism. Previous research had shown that the levels of these biomarkers vary with age, the researchers wrote.

Using a type of algorithm, the researchers determined that there were 26 different biomarker signatures among the study participants. Then, the researchers compared the participants' signatures with their rates of various diseases, and their overall health.

About half of the people in the study had "signature 1," the researchers found. This signature was deemed to be the reference point for all of the other signatures in the study, because the levels of the biomarkers lined up with what researchers would expect based on people's age and sex. For example, biomarkers associated with inflammation are thought to increase with age, while biomarkers associated with certain aspects of kidney function are thought to decrease with age.

Signature 2 was the "healthy aging" signature, and was found in about one quarter of the participants, according to the study. This signature was associated with better physical and cognitive functioning, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and a lower risk of death over the 8-year study period compared with signature 1, the researchers found. [8 Tips for Healthy Aging]

Another eight signatures were associated with higher levels of risk for different diseases and outcomes compared with signature 1, according to the study.  The remaining 16 signatures were not associated with people's risk of disease as they aged.  

To confirm their findings about all 10 of these signatures, the researchers looked at available data on the levels of biomarkers from the participants in another study, the Framingham Heart Study. They found that seven of those 10 signatures successfully predicted the risk of the health conditions for the Framingham participants, the researchers found, adding further support to the findings.

The researchers hope that the biomarker signatures found in the study can be used in drug trials in the future, lead study author Paola Sebastiani, a professor of biostatistics at the Boston University School of Public Health, said in a statement.

Such trials could use the biomarker signatures "to detect the effects, or absence of effects [of a drug], that they are looking for" much earlier than current trials of drugs do, Sebastiani said.

The researchers noted that more studies on larger groups of people are still needed to further confirm the results. In addition, many more biomarkers could also play a role in the signature, and including them could perhaps lead to "even more powerful results," they wrote. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.