High blood iron levels may reduce 'healthy years' but keeping it in check can be key to slower aging: Study
Multiple genes that seem to regulate blood iron levels are often found in long-lived people, analysis reveals
Blood iron levels could play a role in influencing how long a person lives, according to a new study which suggests that maintaining healthy levels of iron in the blood could be a key to aging better and living longer. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, UK, and the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, Germany, focused on three measures linked to biological aging – lifespan, years of life lived free of disease (healthspan) and being extremely long-lived (longevity). Biological aging, that is, the rate at which our bodies decline over time, varies between people and drives the world's most fatal diseases, including heart disease, dementia, and cancers.
The researchers pooled information from three public datasets to enable analysis in unprecedented detail. The combined dataset was equivalent to studying 1.75 million lifespans or more than 60,000 extremely long-lived people. The study used genetic data from more than a million people and identified genes linked to aging that could help explain why some people age at different rates to others. The analysis shows that blood iron levels could be key to slowing aging.
Specifically, the team found that multiple genes that seem to regulate blood iron levels were often found in long-lived people. The team pinpointed 10 regions of the genome linked to a long lifespan, healthspan, and longevity. They found that gene sets linked to iron were overrepresented in their analysis of all three measures of aging. Put simply, having too much iron in the blood appeared to be linked to an increased risk of dying earlier. The researchers confirmed this using a statistical method known as Mendelian randomization, which suggested that “genes involved in metabolizing iron in the blood are partly responsible for a healthy long life,” says the study published in Nature Communications.
“We are very excited by these findings as they strongly suggest that high levels of iron in the blood reduce our healthy years of life, and keeping these levels in check could prevent age-related damage. We speculate that our findings on iron metabolism might also start to explain why very high levels of iron-rich red meat in the diet have been linked to age-related conditions such as heart disease,” writes Dr Paul Timmers from the Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh, in the report.
Blood iron is affected by diet and abnormally high or low levels are linked to age-related conditions such as Parkinson's disease, liver disease, and a decline in the body's ability to fight infection in older age, says the team.
According to the authors, the latest findings could accelerate the development of drugs to reduce the burden of age-related diseases, extend healthy years of life and increase the chances of living to old age free of disease. They explain that designing a drug that could mimic the influence of genetic variation on iron metabolism could be a future step to overcome some of the effects of aging, but caution that more work is required. “Our ultimate aim is to discover how aging is regulated and find ways to increase health during aging. The ten regions of the genome we have discovered that are linked to lifespan, healthspan and longevity are all exciting candidates for further studies,” says Dr Joris Deelen from the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing.