People diagnosed with HIV may age faster because the virus causes premature aging of cells, a new study has found.

Combination antiretroviral therapy brings hope to patients with HIV in terms of prolonging their lives decades after being infected. Despite this, experts observed that patients under this treatment exhibit signs of premature aging.

"The medical issues in treating people with HIV have changed," says study author Howard Fox. Before, the concerns were centered on infections that may occur due to the patients' immunocompromised conditions. Now, experts also have to worry about the development of other diseases related to aging such as liver, heart and brain diseases.

Determining Aging Effects

Nongenetic changes occur in cells and affect the DNA, but not the DNA sequence. These changes may be passed down to the next generation of cells, affecting gene expression.

To investigate, the researchers used a highly efficient biomarker that can detect these nongenetic changes and thus, help measure how much HIV can aged up a person biologically.

The specific nongenetic change used a biomarker in the investigation, called by scientists as methylation, is the attachment of small chemical clusters to DNA.

Study author Trey Ideker explains that past researches showed that methylation in the entire genome changes as people age. Although the exact role of these changes to aging is not yet fully understood, it is something that experts can measure from inside the cells.

The Study

The study involved 137 patients who are currently receiving combination antiretroviral therapy.

All of the participants have no other co-existing health problems that can affect the findings of the study.

During the initial investigation, the research team included 44 HIV-negative patients. To confirm the study findings, they looked into a separate group of 48 individuals, both negative and positive for the disease.

The results show that HIV infection resulted in an average advance of biological age by 4.9 years. Such change correlates to the increased risk of deaths by up to 19 percent.

While it is possible to create medicines that target the epigenetic changes observed in the study, experts point out to the much simpler immediate actions that people can do to curb premature aging associated with HIV.

Patients diagnosed with HIV must be informed of their increased risk of biological aging. They must work to eliminate those risks by making healthier lifestyle decisions regarding their diet, physical activity and the use of tobacco, drug and alcohol.

The study was published in the journal Molecular Cell on April 21.

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