Breast cancer treatment might be speeding up the aging clock. And radiation therapy may be the potential culprit, according to a new study from researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Understanding this connection is vital as it sheds light on potential implications for patients’ long-term health and treatment decisions.
How Cancer Therapies May Speed Up Biological Aging
Chronological age is your time alive, while biological age is your cell’s. Cellular damage over time, influenced by lifestyle, nutrition, diseases, and treatments, accelerates biological aging.
Researchers analyzed blood samples from 417 women, collected twice, about eight years apart, to measure biological age. Roughly 50 percent developed breast cancer during that period.
The NIH scientists examined DNA methylation changes, which are chemical modifications to the DNA, to determine the risk for age-related diseases.
Cancer diagnosis has been associated with accelerated aging in older survivors. The new study examined how specific treatment regimens, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and endocrine therapy, influence biological aging.
The results suggest that cancer therapy treatments, as opposed to surgery, speed up aging because methylation changes weren’t observed in cancer survivors who had undergone a surgical procedure.
For participants with breast cancer, aging rates differed depending on treatment type. However, faster biological aging was most pronounced in those who received radiation therapy.
“The increases can be detected years after treatment,” Dr. Jack Taylor, an emeritus scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the study’s senior author, said in a press statement.
Additional research indicates accelerated biological aging from cancer treatments may have lifelong health impacts.
A 2022 study found that age increases cancer risk, and treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery, and radiation accelerate biological aging. It also found that by age 45, childhood cancer survivors faced twice the disease burden of people without cancer, indicating that the stresses of other treatments may have similar effects.
“Women faced with a breast cancer diagnosis should discuss all possible treatment options with their doctors to determine the best course of treatment for them,” Katie O’Brien, an NIEHS Epidemiology Branch scientist and coauthor of the NIH paper and who holds a doctorate in epidemiology, said in a press statement.
Radiation’s Effectiveness Still Outweighs Aging Link: Expert
The NIH researchers insisted that the findings don’t mean women with breast cancer should dismiss radiation therapy as an option. Radiation remains highly effective in preventing recurrence and spreading, according to experts.
The effects of radiation and chemotherapy are associated with increased biological aging despite their importance in cancer treatments, Dr. Theodore Strange, associate medical director at Staten Island University Hospital, told The Epoch Times. “If not for the treatments, one may not be able to get to be as chronologically older as possible as the cancer would cause the premature death,” he added.
The risks always have to be weighed against the benefits in all treatment plans offered to patients, Dr. Strange said, noting that emerging targeted therapies may limit side effects like accelerated aging.
Targeted cancer drugs are designed to precisely hone in on specific proteins that enable tumor growth and spread and may not have the same age-accelerating effect research has associated with currently used treatments.
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