LUMC | August 20 – 2019 | PRESSRELEASE

Researchers on ageing led by Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) have identified a combination of biomarkers in the blood which could help estimate the vulnerability of elderly people consistently across five European countries, equally in men and women of all ages above 60 years.

The scientists searched in the blood of 44,168 individuals for biomarkers that are indicative of a person’s remaining lifespan. A large proportion of those individuals were over 60 years old. After an extensive analysis, they arrived at a set of 14 biomarkers that together provide an indication of the remaining lifespan within the next five to ten years in the life of the participants.

These biomarkers include for example, various amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – and levels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, fatty acid balances and inflammation. According to the researchers, the method by which the biomarkers are measured, developed in Finland, is easy to perform and affordable when applied in large study populations. The measurement can therefore be performed in ongoing studies with large numbers of community dwelling and hospital-based elderly people.

This large-scale study was possible through an international collaboration of biobanks, BBMRI-NL (Biobanking and BioMolecular resources Research Infrastructure the Netherlands) and the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing. The researchers describe their results in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Identify vulnerable elderly people

The blood-based measurement is intended as a first step towards a more personalised treatment of the elderly, explains study director Prof. Eline Slagboom. “As researchers on ageing, we are keen to determine the biological age. The calendar age just doesn’t say very much about the general state of health of elderly people: one 70-year-old is healthy, while another may already be suffering from three diseases. Elderly people sometimes have a high biological age that is not known about, are at risk of multiple diseases and often react unexpectedly to a treatment.”

Slagboom adds: “If we can identify vulnerable elderly people with this blood-based measurement, then the next step is to anticipate this vulnerability. One example would be an adapted diet for someone who runs a high risk of losing muscle mass rapidly during a hospital stay. It is also conceivable that such a measurement could be used to investigate whether a new drug would have a favourable or unfavourable effect on the risk of dying.”

Not yet for the individual

But she stresses that there is still some way to go. “The result of the measurement currently says something about the general state of health of the more than 44,000 people in our study. That’s all well and good, but we can’t say anything yet about the risk of a specific condition or the risk for an individual. For example, does the result say anything about the immune system, the metabolism, muscle strength or cognition? And what advice is appropriate in this context? As long as we don’t know what we’re looking at exactly, we can’t base any advice on it, and we can’t apply the measurement in the clinic.” However, the researchers do now have a starting point and they are working on answering these questions in BBMRI and the research association VOILA (Vitality Oriented Innovations for the Lifecourse of the Ageing Society).

Would you like to know more? Read the open-access article ‘A metabolic profile of all-cause mortality risk identified in an observational study of 44,168 individuals’ in Nature Communications.