Black older Americans age faster than white counterparts

According to a new Penn study, inequities in socioeconomic resources is the main cause of biological aging as measured by DNA methylation.

A team of Penn researchers found that Black Americans are aging faster than white Americans, and inequities in socioeconomic resources is the main cause.

Scientists measure age with more data than just a birthdate. Biological age accounts for the various experiences in life that may slow or quicken the way your body ages.

African American senior citizen in a wheelchair with a group of people in the background playing a game.

“There are some people who are 80, super healthy, and live for many years. Then, there are 65-year-olds that already have many health problems,” says Isabel Yannatos, a Ph.D. candidate in the Perelman School of Medicine. “Biological age reflects the differences in how people develop health problems as they age.”

Due to various social and structural determinants of health, such as inequities in socioeconomic status and neighborhood resources, Black Americans have accelerated biological aging compared to white Americans.

“It is well established that some individuals age at different paces than other individuals,” says Corey McMillan, associate professor of neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine. “The research addresses some of the environmental pressures that contribute to different paces of aging, which Black individuals are more often exposed to due to structural factors like environmental racism.”

Yannatos, who trained in biophysics and is a doctoral student in McMillan’s lab, seeks to understand the disparity in biological age between Black and white Americans on a molecular level.

“I want to integrate how the conditions, environments, and discrimination that people face can impact someone on a molecular level and affect their health,” says Yannatos.

DNA methylation is when small chemical groups tag, or latch, onto DNA.

“This process is reversible, meaning the tag can be added or taken away, and it typically changes with age,” says Yannatos. “But, the rate of change is different amongst individuals, and that is how we capture the rate of biological aging.”

This story is by Meghan McCarthy. Read more at Penn Memory Center.