The role of genetic testing in healthy ageing

Published: 28 May 2021

The World Health Organisation, WHO, defines
 healthy ageing as ‘the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age’ – in other words, how we look after our bodies as we age, so that we can continue to do the things we need and want to do. Though there are many factors at play, there seems to be a consensus that being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a balanced diet, are all important considerations for healthy ageing.

So, where does genetic testing fit in?

At Cheltenham Science Festival in 2020, Professor Joanne Hackett and the Society’s President, Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, shared insights into how DNA testing is helping us to transition to personalised medicine in the ‘DNA Testing: All in the Genes’ event (available to watch here and below). As the prevalence of DNA testing continues to grow, more of us will have access to our genetic information. This information will help healthcare professionals to optimise treatments and provide us with the information to help us make healthier life choices.

There are certain genes, also known as pharmacogenes, which play a role in the metabolism of certain medications. Some people have mutations within these pharmacogenes which affect how they tolerate medications. Having access to patients’ genetic profiles through DNA testing will help doctors to make decisions on the best ways to treat patients, including prescribing the most appropriate doses of medications.

In addition to helping tailor treatments for individuals, genetic testing can help to prevent diseases. A well-known case of genetic screening is for BRCA1 mutations to prevent breast cancers. As research continues, our understanding of how these genetic mutations impact complex diseases improves, which means we can begin to establish polygenic risk scores for these diseases. Polygenic risk scores, also known as genetic risk scores, are estimates of how likely a person is to have or to develop a certain trait, based on multiple genetic variants. By understanding our risk scores for chronic diseases, we can better understand our health and take preventative measures to avoid disease risks.

Genetic testing can help individuals to make more informed decisions about their general health, and therefore how to age healthily too. In the future, we might each carry ‘genetic passports’ containing our genetic information. These passports would help healthcare practitioners to manage and mitigate preventable health outcomes.

What does the future hold for genetic testing?

The advent of low-cost genetic sequencing has helped researchers to better understand the human genome, but it also has applications in other research areas. One such area is sequencing the gut microbiome, as this could give us insights into how nutrition affects our bodies. Similarly, the sequencing of the epigenome, the chemical changes to the DNA which affects its expression, would give further insight into how stress and environmental factors can affect our health. However, these areas of genetic sequencing are still developing and the answer to how we translate research findings into practical ways to improve our health is still elusive. Genetic testing and personalised medicine may hold the key to dramatically improving many lives and helping us to age more healthily, and more research in this field will help us move closer towards these goals.

Looking to find out more about how to age well?

Whilst we currently can't stop the ageing process entirely, a large area of research around the world is focussing on improving our quality of life in old age and ensuring we are able to live healthy lives for longer. In addition, the field of senotherapeutics - anti-ageing drugs that target the triggers of cellular senescence - is exploring the effects of transiently blocking the triggers of ageing, using pharmacological approaches. Whilst we aren't yet able to stop ageing all together, medicines have an important role to play in helping us stay active and healthy.

If you are interested in the topic of healthy ageing and how medicines can help us all to live healthier lives for longer, what the How To Age Well event that took place as part of this year's Cheltenham Science Festival. The event recording is available online through the #CheltSciFest Player until September 2021. If the cost of the on-demand access is a barrier to you being able to enjoy the event, please contact us. We are pleased to be able to offer a limited number of discounted rates to support our members in accessing this content.

For more information about the event, visit the event webpage.


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Taichi Ochi

Taichi is currently undertaking his PhD at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands), investigating drug-drug-gene interactions of pharmacogenes, with a focus on depression and its comorbidities. In conjunction with his PhD, he coordinates Pint of Science in the Netherlands, a global science communication festival.