Study Links Certain Cancer Treatments to Accelerated Cellular Aging, Early Onset Age-Related Conditions

Certain anti-cancer therapies may hasten cellular aging, resulting in changes to the DNA of patients, according to a study published in Cancer. These changes may contribute to greater inflammation and fatigue for these individuals.

Though gene activity is adjusted over an individual’s lifetime through epigenetic changes, or physical modifications to DNA that do not involve altering the underlying DNA sequence, some individuals may experience epigenetic age acceleration (EAA) that puts them at a higher risk of age-related conditions than other individuals of the same chronological age, according to the study authors.

In the current study, investigators examined EAA changes during and after cancer treatment, and looked for a potential link between these changes and fatigue in patients with head and neck cancer (HNC). In an analysis of 133 patients with HNC, one-half of the patients experienced severe fatigue at some point. EAA was most prominent immediately after radiation therapy, when the average epigenetic age was accelerated by 4.9 years.

Increased EAA was associated with increased fatigue, and patients with severe fatigue experienced 3.1 years higher EAA than those with low fatigue. Additionally, patients with high levels of markers of inflammation exhibited approximately 5 years higher EAA, and inflammation appeared to account for most of the effects of EAA on fatigue, according to the study authors.

“Our findings add to the body of evidence suggesting that long-term toxicity and possibly increased mortality incurred from anti-cancer treatments for patients with HNC may be related to increased EAA and its association with inflammation,” said Canhua Xiao, PhD, RN, FAAN, of the Emory University School of Nursing, in a press release. “Future studies could examine the vulnerabilities that may account for sustained high EAA, fatigue, and inflammation among patients.”

An editorial accompanying the study stresses that chronic fatigue in patients receiving treatment for cancer is more than just a symptom and may play an important role in influencing patients' health. Interventions to reduce inflammation, including prior to cancer treatment, might benefit patients by decelerating the aging process and subsequently reducing age-related chronic health problems such as fatigue, according to the study authors.


Cancer treatments may accelerate cellular aging [news release]. EurekAlert; May 24, 2021. Accessed May 24, 2021.