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Simple Blood Test Identifies Organs Likely to Fail First

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 07 Dec 2023
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Image: A new study has found a way to predict which of our organs will fail first (Photo courtesy of illustratoren.de/TobiasWuestefeld)
Image: A new study has found a way to predict which of our organs will fail first (Photo courtesy of illustratoren.de/TobiasWuestefeld)

Similar to a typical car or house or society, the speed at which parts of the human body fall apart differs from part to part. In a groundbreaking study, researchers have developed a novel method to analyze organ aging by examining specific proteins or sets of proteins in the blood. This approach can predict an individual's risk for various diseases.

Investigators at Stanford Medicine (Stanford, CA, USA) conducted a study involving 5,678 participants that revealed organ age at varying rates. The research found that when an organ is significantly older than what is typical for a person's chronological age, that individual faces an increased risk for diseases related to that organ, as well as a higher mortality risk. The study found that approximately 20% of healthy adults over 50 have at least one organ aging much faster than normal. This finding suggests that a simple blood test could identify which organs in a person are aging rapidly, potentially allowing for early intervention before symptoms appear. Previous studies have generated single numbers to represent biological age, contrasting with chronological age. However, this new research assigns specific aging numbers to 11 key organs and systems: the heart, fat, lung, immune system, kidney, liver, muscle, pancreas, brain, vasculature, and intestine.

The researchers utilized available technologies and a unique algorithm to measure thousands of blood proteins, identifying nearly 1,000 proteins linked to specific organs. Abnormal protein levels were associated with accelerated aging of corresponding organs, increasing susceptibility to disease and death. They calculated an "age gap" for each organ, representing the difference between its actual and algorithm-predicted age. The study found significant associations between these age gaps and future mortality risk over 15 years, except for the intestine. An accelerated-aging organ, defined as having a biological age one standard deviation higher than the average for that organ in people of the same chronological age, was associated with a 15% to 50% increased mortality risk over the following 15 years.

The study also found that accelerated heart aging significantly increased the risk of heart failure, while older brains correlated with a higher likelihood of cognitive decline. Accelerated aging in the brain or vasculature was a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease progression. Additionally, there were clear connections between extremely aged kidneys and conditions like hypertension and diabetes, as well as between aged hearts and atrial fibrillation or heart attacks. The identification of organ-specific proteins that indicate excessive aging could also lead to new therapeutic targets, paving the way for drug development and more personalized medical interventions.

“We can estimate the biological age of an organ in an apparently healthy person,” said the study’s senior author, Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, a professor of neurology and the D. H. Chen Professor II. “That, in turn, predicts a person’s risk for disease related to that organ.”

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