A study published in EBioMedicine on Feb. 15 reveals if a person’s biologic age is older than his chronological age, this person is at a higher risk of developing and dying of cancer. Researchers at the Northwestern Medicine calls the biologic age as epigenetic age, the new predictor of cancer.

The researchers say that each one year increase in the chronological age and epigenetic age difference leads to a six percent increased risk of getting cancer. They also note that this would mean a 17 percent increased risk of dying of cancer within five years. Developing cancer results when the epigenetic age is six months older than the chronological age and cancer death will happen if the biologic age is 2.2 years than the person’s actual age. The bigger the difference between the two ages, the risk of dying of cancer increases.

The epigenetic age is calculated based on an algorithm that measures 71 blood DNA methylation markers, which are molecule clusters attached to a gene that will make the gene amenable with the body’s biochemical signals. Moreover, these can be influenced by several factors that include environmental chemicals, a person’s exercise habits, diet and obesity. Apparently, the test is not accessible to the public but is only used by academic researchers.

Flickr/Catherine Scott

Flickr/Catherine Scott

“This could become a new early warning sign of cancer. The discrepancy between the two ages appears to be a promising tool that could be used to develop an early detection blood test for cancer,” says, lead researcher Lifang Hou, a chief of cancer epidemiology and prevention in preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and co-leader of the cancer prevention program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Centre of Northwestern University.

The study is the first one to link the difference between epigenetic age and chronologic age with cancer. It involved using 834 blood samples collected from 442 cancer-free participants from 1999 to 2013. This allowed for accurate measurements of epigenetic age and the relationship to cancer risk.

“People who are healthy have a very small difference between their epigenetic/biological age and chronological age,” Hou adds. “People who develop cancer have a large difference and people who die from cancer have a difference even larger than that. Our evidence showed a clear trend.”

Author Yinan Zheng, a predoctoral fellow at Feinberg, notes that the results show the implications of the epigenetic-chronological age discrepancy to study health and disease development more closely. The researchers are currently investigating if the epigenetic age can be reduced with practising a healthy lifestyle.