UI research links moderate alcohol use with heathy aging
New DNA assessment tool could be at UIHC in a year
Source: The Gazette
October 8, 2015
Imagine you’re at the doctor’s office, faced with the standard health-related questions: Do you smoke? How much do you drink?
Do you tell the truth? Or do you fudge it – answering with a “not really” or a “once in a while?”
Soon, you might not have the option, thanks to University of Iowa researchers who have developed methods for getting to the bottom of those questions – regardless of what patients share. The new techniques involve DNA methylation, a molecular modification to DNA that affects when and how strongly a gene is expressed. And they could compel significant progress in physicians’ ability to use patient lifestyle choices to determine and improve long-term health and life expectancy.
“These new tools allow us to monitor smoking and alcohol use in an objective way, and to understand their effects quantitatively,” said Meeshanthini Dogan, a graduate research assistant and doctoral candidate in the UI Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Dogan, along with UI psychiatry professor Robert Philibert and colleagues at other institutions, have found a way – using a previously-validated “epigenetic clock” that calculates the difference in a person’s biological and chronological age – to assess the relationship between tobacco or alcohol use and premature aging.
Dogan presented the findings Thursday at the American Society of Human Genetics 2015 annual meeting in Baltimore, and – for those who enjoy a night cap – the news isn’t all bad.
Although they linked all levels of smoke exposure to significantly premature aging, moderate alcohol use – about one to two drinks a day – correlated with the healthiest aging. The findings showed high alcohol consumption and very low alcohol use accelerate aging.
Among the reasons researchers believe moderate alcohol use can be good are associated “protective behaviors,” like socialization and stress reduction.
The new DNA testing techniques could be used for other lifestyle factors, like healthy eating – although Dogan said that’s not something the UI lab is looking into right now. She said the UI research does, however, extend beyond gauging past smoking and drinking and has practical proactive uses.
For example, it could allow doctors to objectively identify patients at risk of future heavy alcohol use or smoking when they are young, helping them “prevent future problems, improve quality of life, and reduce later medical costs.”
The next step is unraveling how DNA methylation patterns change in response to lifestyle adjustments – like when a person stops smoking or cuts back on drinking.
“We want to study how the intensity of current tobacco and alcohol use and cumulative levels of use throughout a lifetime affect methylation, including what happens when a person quits smoking or drinking,” Dogan said. “By clarifying at what point the (DNA) changes become tougher to stop or reverse, we can inform decisions about how best to use the limited public health resources we have.”
Philibert said research does indicate negative health effects – including things like liver disease – can improve with lifestyle changes.
“The best news is that if you quit . the problem goes away,” he said.
Providers with UI Health Care could start using the “methylation-based technologies” within a year – possibly enabling them to test patient smoking with a blood test, according to Philibert.
“If so, it will be the first biological marker ever used in the treatment of a behavioral illness,” he said.