Cancer treatments can accelerate the aging of a patient’s cells by 5 years

ATLANTA, Ga. — There are plenty of unhealthy habits, like smoking and drinking, which can age a person faster than normal. Now, a new study reveals life-saving cancer treatments may unfortunately have the same effect. Researchers say some anti-cancer therapies can quicken the pace the cellular aging — the process by which changes in a person’s DNA leads to more inflammation and fatigue.

Even in a healthy person, gene activity is constantly readjusting itself through a series of epigenetic changes. These are physical alterations to your DNA that don’t actually change the basic DNA sequences every human has.

However, study authors say some people can experience epigenetic age acceleration (EAA). These changes, which make a person’s cells older than their chronological age, can put someone at greater risk for developing age-related conditions and diseases.

Radiation therapy can be a double-edged sword for head and neck cancer patients

Researchers examined EAA changes in 133 head and neck cancer patients during and after receiving radiation treatments. The team was looking for any links between cellular aging and the fatigue these patients experience during therapy.

The results reveal DNA changes were the most striking immediately following radiation therapy. On average, the treatments accelerated cellular aging by 4.9 years.

Study authors also discovered higher EAA has a connection to patients experiencing more fatigue. Cancer patients with severe fatigue suffered from over three more years worth of aging than those with low levels of fatigue.

Additionally, head and neck cancer patients with high levels of inflammation displayed about five years worth of cellular aging. Inflammation also appeared to be responsible for most of the impact EAA had on patients dealing with fatigue.

“Our findings add to the body of evidence suggesting that long-term toxicity and possibly increased mortality incurred from anti-cancer treatments for patients with HNC may be related to increased EAA and its association with inflammation,” says lead author Canhua Xiao, PhD, RN, FAAN, from the Emory University School of Nursing in a media release. “Future studies could examine the vulnerabilities that may account for sustained high EAA, fatigue, and inflammation among patients.”

Study authors believe reducing inflammation before starting cancer treatments may help patients ward off the impact of accelerated aging. The team notes that fatigue is not just a side-effect of cancer therapies, it can also play a major role in the development of future health problems.

The findings appear in the journal CANCER.

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