March 9, 2009 Wrinkly skin, breathlessness and a chesty cough are regularly associated with heavy smoking. They can belie a person's age by making someone seem older than they actually are, but until now, scientists have known little about the biological mechanisms that appear to accelerate the aging process.
Professor William MacNee from the University of Edinburgh has been investigating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that is usually caused by smoking and other environmental pollutants. COPD progressively and irreversibly damages lungs and kills around 30,000 people a year in the UK.
Speaking at a meeting of the Biochemical Society held in Charnwood today (March 5) he told delegates about new evidence for accelerated aging linked to COPD. "We believe that there is a relationship between inflammation seen in COPD and ageing. Accelerated ageing could also be a process that links damage to the lungs with other diseases, such as heart disease," he said.
Natural ageing and the eventual death of cells are hastened and these processes are now thought to be central to the development of COPD. Professor MacNee continued, "There is new evidence that cigarette smoke and other pollutants may accelerate the ageing process by making the inflammation in the lungs worse and impairing the healing process."
The function of our lungs deteriorates with age in the same way as our skin, bones and blood vessels. Throughout life, cells divide to maintain and renew the cells that make up our whole body. Gene components, known as telomeres, protect chromosomes and play an important role in cell division. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides and if it becomes too short, DNA may be damaged and this results in ageing.
Similar accelerated ageing processes are now thought to be linked with heart and circulatory diseases that often occur in people with COPD. The disease continues even when people give up smoking. Professor MacNee presented the evidence that normal ageing processes are altered in patients with COPD.
Looking ahead, Professor MacNee said, "If we can discover how to intervene, we could find a way to help prevent accelerated ageing."