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Blood test may predict the organs in the body that are aging faster than normal, says Stanford study

Nearly 20% of healthy adults have at least one organ aging at an accelerated rate — which increases disease risk. Here's what to know about a new study out of Stanford University.

A simple blood test could detect which organs are aging at an accelerated pace for people who otherwise appear healthy, according to a recent study published on Dec. 7 in the journal Nature.

Researchers from Stanford University Medicine found that roughly one in every five "reasonably healthy" adults aged 50 or older has at least one organ that is aging at a "strongly accelerated rate," which causes a higher risk of disease and death.

The blood test could help guide therapeutic interventions before symptoms appear, according to senior author Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, the senior author of the study and a professor of neurology at Stanford Medicine in California.


By looking at specialized proteins in a person’s blood, scientists could detect the biological age of an organ, even if the person appears healthy at the time, Wyss-Coray told Fox News Digital. 

That information could then predict the person’s risk for disease related to that organ.

Wyss-Coray compared it to an auto mechanic plugging a vehicle into a machine to get information about how the different car parts are functioning.

"This is basically what we do, but by looking at the concentration of these highly specialized proteins," he told Fox News Digital in an interview.

The research team — led by Stanford in collaboration with Washington University; the University of California, San Francisco; the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; and Montefiore Medical Center in New York — looked at blood samples from 5,678 people, focusing on proteins in the blood that are unique to specific organs. 


"For example, because the brain is highly specialized, it uses very special proteins to maintain its function," Wyss-Coray said.

The team then created a model using an algorithm to detect the organs’ biological age.

"When we compared each of these organs’ biological age for each individual to their counterparts among a large group of people without obvious severe diseases, we found that 18.4% of those age 50 or older had at least one organ aging significantly more rapidly than the average," Wyss-Coray said in a news release from the university.

"These individuals were at a heightened risk for disease in that particular organ in the next 15 years."

Human organs age at different rates, lead authors Hamilton Oh and Jarod Rutledge, who are graduate students in Wyss-Coray’s lab, said in the Stanford news release.

Previous studies have examined ways to detect a person’s biological age through biomarkers, but the Stanford team took it a step further by determining scores for specific organs, including the heart, brain, kidney, liver, pancreas, lung, intestines, immune system and tissues. 


The researchers used an algorithm that included organ-specific protein calculations and came up with an "age gap." That's the difference between an organ’s actual age and its estimated age based on the algorithm’s calculations, Wyss-Cross told Fox News Digital.

Age gaps were found for 10 of the 11 organs studied. An individual who had an accelerated-aging organ carried a 15% to 50% higher mortality risk over the next 15 years depending on which organ was affected, the study found.

Even for people who did not initially show any active disease or abnormal clinical biomarkers, an accelerated aging heart increased their risk of heart failure by 2.5 times, according to the study release.

Those considered to have "older" brains were 1.8 times as likely to show cognitive decline over five years, compared to those with "young" brains, the Stanford release noted.

Accelerated aging of the brain or vasculature (blood vessel) system also predicted risk for Alzheimer’s disease progression, according to the study.

There were also strong associations between an extreme-aging kidney score with diabetes and hypertension, as well as a link between an extreme-aging heart score and atrial fibrillation or heart attack, Wyss-Coray told Fox News Digital. 

A smaller number of individuals (1 in 60 people) had two organs that were aging at a faster pace. Their mortality risk was 6.5 times higher than a person without a significantly aged organ.

"If we can reproduce this finding in 50,000 or 100,000 individuals, it will mean that by monitoring the health of individual organs in apparently healthy people, we might be able to find organs that are undergoing accelerated aging in people’s bodies, and we might be able to treat people before they get sick," Wyss-Coray said in the release.

Another benefit of identifying accelerated organ aging is that it can help with drug repurposing, he noted.

"Let’s say you take a drug for heart disease and we saw that as a result, your lung gets younger," Wyss-Coray told Fox News Digital in the interview. "It could be another effect of that drug. Then maybe we can use that same drug to treat a lung disease."


Identifying these proteins can also lead to new drug targets, Wyss-Coray added.

If proteins are shown to decline in people who get a disease, scientists could make more of them, for example — or other proteins could be inhibited if they are detrimental.

Dr. Anuradha Lala, M.D., an advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist at Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital in New York City, was not affiliated with the study, but told Fox News Digital that the findings may help to increase organ donations. 

In heart transplant medicine, doctors typically select relatively younger, healthier donors to maximize the longevity of the transplanted organ, Lala noted.

"Yet the authors showed … that aging in one organ did not necessarily mean other organs age at the same rate," she told Fox News Digital. 

"Given the large number of patients awaiting life-saving transplantation of specific organs, being able to decipher which organs may indeed have better chances of doing well could theoretically increase the number of donor [hearts] available," Lala said. 

More research is needed into the implications of race, ethnicity and gender, as well as costs and access, she added.

Sean Clouston, PhD, a professor in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine in the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University in New York, was not involved in the study but commented on the research.

"This is a remarkably complicated but intuitive study that used exceptional measurements to examine aging separately across different organ systems," Clouston, who is also the director of public health research, said via email to Fox News Digital.

The study findings could help practitioners identify and treat many types of conditions, he added.

"This could mean that you could go to your doctor to do one blood test to monitor a huge array of conditions … and maybe they could act earlier to intervene for problems that are still only emerging."

Existing treatments, including those for Alzheimer’s disease, could also become much more effective, Clouston noted.

Two doctors from Northwell Health on Long Island, New York — Dr. Christine L. Sardo Molmenti, PhD, an associate professor and cancer epidemiologist, and Dr. Ernesto P. Molmenti, MD, Ph.D., surgical director of kidney transplantation — were not involved in the study but weighed in on the findings.

The findings "bring us closer to the concept of individualized and personalized medicine," they said in a joint statement to Fox News Digital.


"They are able to identify, in a minimally invasive way, which organs will require immediate, intermediate and/or long-term therapeutic interventions," the doctors said.

"Once an organ has been identified as actively aging, it may allow for providing optimal medical care and improving prognosis and survival," they continued. 

"With our ultimate goal of intervening prior to the progression of disease, this approach also focuses on prevention as a promising strategy for reducing morbidity and mortality of several chronic diseases that are leading causes of death in this country."

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