Across the globe, life expectancies are rising exponentially, with one in three babies born today expected to see their 100th birthday. However, to maximise our health in our ever-increasing later years, we must deepen our understanding of ageing, with new research by BGI Group helping us rethink what it means to “age” and rethink what it means to diagnose and treat disease.

Kane Tanaka is a Japanese supercentenarian who, at the age of 119, is the oldest living person in the world. Born in 1903, the year the Wright brothers made their first powered flight, Tanaka has lived through five Japanese imperial reigns and two world wars, despite her weakness for chocolate and fizzy drinks.

For most of human history, turning 100, let alone 119, was a fanciful question. In the early 20th century, life expectancy at birth was around 50 years, with men living to an average of 48.4 years and women to around 54 years. Yet, today, there are nearly 15,000 centenarians in the UK alone, with their numbers expected to reach more than a quarter of a million by 2100.  

Life expectancies have been rising by up to three months a year since 1840. Dramatic advances in medicine and technology, combined with economic growth and improved access to education, have all made this possible, with vaccines, safer childbirth, and breakthrough developments in cancer and heart disease proving critical to helping us live longer.

For millennia, infections were the leading cause of death. But over the last century, childhood immunisation has radically reduced or virtually wiped-out whooping cough, polio, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and numerous other diseases. Likewise, the discovery of penicillin has enabled us to treat a wide range of bacterial infections.  

As a result of these scientific and medical advancements, we are now living far longer than we ever have before. But to seize the advantages of our ever-increasing life spans, we must deepen our understanding of the process of ageing, with new research by BGI Group helping us rethink what it means to age, while paving the way for more accurate diagnostics and treatments to improve healthcare in our later years.

The ground-breaking research by BGI-Research and a team of international scientists, published in Cell Reports, finds that measuring age chronologically does not give an accurate picture of a person’s true age. Instead, we must focus on tracking internal biological clocks. Gathering data from 4066 people aged 20 to 45, the researchers from BGI Group used biomarkers, statistical modelling, and other developed tools for measuring the biological ages of various organ systems.  

Based on their findings, the researchers reported there are multiple biological “clocks” within the body that vary widely based on factors such as genetics and lifestyle, with organs such as the heart, kidney, and liver ageing at wildly different rates within the same individual.

“Our study used approaches that can help improve our understanding of ageing and—more importantly—could be used some day in real healthcare practice,” says co-corresponding author Xun Xu of  BGI Group and China National GeneBank (CNGB) in Shenzhen, China.  

A comprehensive evaluation of the ageing rates of a person’s organs using multi-omics biomarkers could provide more detailed information on which parts of the body are not functioning properly, and also suggest specific gene- or pathway-targeted intervention.

For example, the study found that measuring the biological age of the liver can predict the presence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. In this way, the researchers found that closely monitoring the biological age of a patient’s organs can help doctors calculate the risk of a person developing a specific disease. This would not only help improve diagnostics but pave the way for a future of personalized medicine, where disease can be treated with specific gene- or pathway-targeted interventions.

Today, the future looks very bright. As life expectancies continue to climb across the globe, a growing number of us can now expect to reach our 100th birthdays. However, as we all begin to live longer, we must deepen our understanding of ageing to ensure we are well-equipped to meet the healthcare challenges of tomorrow.

BGI Group’s research has revealed ageing is far from skin deep. While we must now rethink what it means to age, it is clear we can also rethink how we diagnose and treat disease, with the new research revealing vital lessons as how to improve healthcare in our later years.