New research suggests that some anti-cancer treatments may accelerate cell aging, and changes in patients’ DNA may lead to greater inflammation and fatigue. The findings were published online by Wiley in cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. Gene activity is often adjusted in life through epigenetic changes or physical modification of DNA but does not involve altering the underlying DNA sequence.
Some people may experience epigenetic age acceleration (EAA), putting them at higher risk of age-related diseases than others of the same age.
Investigators recently looked at changes in EAA during and after cancer treatment, looking for a potential link between these changes and fatigue in patients with head and neck cancer (HNC).
In a study of 133 HNC patients, half experienced severe fatigue at some point. EAA was most prominent immediately after radiotherapy when the average epigenetic age accelerated by 4.9 years. The increase in EAA was associated with increased fatigue, with patients with severe fatigue experiencing 3.1 years of EAA compared to patients with low fatigue. In addition, patients with high levels of inflammatory markers had EAA high for about 5 years, and inflammation appeared to be the majority of the cause of EAA’s effect on fatigue.
“Our findings add to a wealth of evidence that long-term toxicity and potentially increased mortality from cancer treatment in HNC patients may be associated with an increase in EAA and its association with inflammation,” said lead author Dr. Canhua Xiao, a nurse at Emory University School of Nursing in Atlanta. “Future studies could examine vulnerability that may cause patients to continue to have high levels of EAA, fatigue, and inflammation.”
Interventions to reduce inflammation, including before cancer treatment, may benefit patients by slowing down the aging process and subsequently reducing chronic age-related health problems, such as fatigue, the authors note.
A subsequent paper emphasizes that chronic fatigue in patients treated for cancer is not just a symptom.