Scientists have found a ‘Peter Pan gene’ that could explain why some people remain baby-faced while others become old before their time.
Millions of Britons are blessed with DNA that makes them look up to eight years younger than their peers.
The research – the first to definitively link genetic changes to ageing – could be why Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney look significantly younger than Mick Jagger, despite both being his senior.
It could also pave the way for drugs that hold back the hands of time and keep hearts and brains healthy into old age.
The British-led research team made the discovery after trawling the DNA of more than 12,000 people for patterns that affected the rate their bodies aged.
This identified one stretch of DNA that clearly sped up ageing, the journal Nature Genetics reports.
Up to 7 per cent of the population has two copies of it, meaning they look up to eight years older than people of the same age. Another 38 per cent has one copy, ageing them by three to four years.
A fortunate, and fresh-faced, 55 per cent do not have it at all. Instead, they have two copies of the ‘Peter Pan’ gene, meaning they remain youthful-looking for longer.
The key to the study was the length of telomeres – tiny biological clocks that cap the ends of chromosomes. They get shorter and shorter with time, until eventually the cells die.
The researchers, from the University of Leicester and King’s College London, found that people with the ‘Peter Pan’ version had longer telomeres, meaning their biological clocks ticked more slowly.
Previous research has linked long telomeres with good health and shorter ones with age-related ills such as heart disease and some cancers.
Telomere length is also likely to affect the way a person ages facially.
Professor Nilesh Samini, of Leicester University, said: ‘What we found was that those individuals carrying a particular genetic variant had shorter telomeres, that is, looked biologically older.’
He said the genetic link could help explain why heavy smokers remained disease-free into old age, while other people with apparently healthy lifestyles succumbed to disease while still young.
Professor Tim Spector, of King’s College London, said: ‘What our study suggests is that some people are genetically programmed to age at a faster rate.’
The research paves the way for a genetic test that would allow doctors to identify those at risk of age-related diseases. It also raises the possibility of telomerelengthening drugs that would help keep the ravages of time at bay.
However, concerns lengthening telomeres could trigger cancer means they would likely be used to keep specific organs – such as the heart or brain – healthy, rather than keeping the entire body young.
Jeremy Pearson, of the British Heart Foundation, which partfunded the study, said: ‘ Understanding how our cells age is an important step in our quest for better ways to prevent and treat heart disease.
‘Perhaps in the future one of the ways we try to reduce the risk of, or treat, heart disease would be to use an ‘anti-ageing’ approach for our arteries.’
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