New findings suggest that high levels of inflammatory bacteria are associated with accelerated aging and poor fitness performance.
The human gut is a complex ecosystem, home to trillions of microorganisms that play an important role in maintaining our health.
Recent research published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience shows that diversity of gut microbes can not only affect our physical well-being but also how fast we age.
The discovery by a team at the Hungarian University of Sports Sciences opens up new possibilities for harnessing the power of probiotics to promote health and longevity, said study lead author Professor Jsolt Radak.
With his team in Budapest, Radak examined the relationship between gut microbiome diversity, biological age — our age as determined by our overall health status, and not the years of our life — and physical fitness in 80 amateur rowers.
For the purpose of the study, each participant underwent a series of fitness assessments and provided a stool sample to analyze the bacteria in their gut, as well as a blood sample to determine their biological age using epigenetic markers.
Epigenetic markers are like switches in our DNA that can control whether certain genes are turned on or off, and play an important role in determining how our cells develop, function, and respond to our environment.
The quality of our cells can be affected by factors such as our lifestyle, diet and exposure to environmental factors, which can ultimately affect our health and how we age.
Epigenetic markers allow scientists to measure this cellular decline, providing us with a snapshot of the “epigenetic clock” or “biological age.”
“We found that inflammatory bacteria are actually accelerating the aging process, so if you have more inflammatory bacteria, then you’re aging,” Radak told Euronews Next, adding that accelerated aging “means you’re older than your chronological age”.
Similarly, after analyzing the specific bacteria present in the rowers’ gut microbiome, the researchers found that higher levels of anti-inflammatory bacteria were associated with improved fitness indices and slower rates of aging.
Conversely, the presence of inflammatory bacteria was associated with poorer performance in fitness tests.
The athletes ranged in age from 38 to 84 and participated in the 2019 World Rowing Masters Regatta, an international rowing competition designed specifically for masters rowers.
An important link between the gut and aging
The findings suggest an important link between gut bacteria, inflammation, fitness and the aging process, challenging the common belief that more bacteria equals better health, Radak said.
The study, however, did not establish a cause and effect. It may well be that athletes’ possibly healthy dietary choices are positively influencing the abundance of beneficial bacteria in their gut.
However, “these bacteria are not associated with chronological aging. Which I think is a pretty interesting observation because it means that these bacteria are actually involved in DNA methylation aging (epigenetic aging), (and therefore) not the result of (chronological) aging,” Radak said.
In other words, inflammatory bacteria, when abundant, are associated with accelerated aging.
“I think these results are important because we first need to identify the relationships. And then, of course, if you can confirm that, the next step is to change (treat) that abundance (of inflammatory bacteria) and then change that. In the gut microbiome that Allowing for aging and healthy living to decline,” he said.
Radak’s team is currently conducting a follow-up six-month study in which they altered the gut microbiome of rowers using probiotics to assess whether this intervention directly affects biological age.
The results are expected to be published in early 2024.
Meanwhile, they are also working on a different study involving 60 Olympic champions between the ages of 25 and 102, which aims to explore the effects of early high-level physical activity on the aging process.
Preliminary results have already revealed that elite athletes have a younger epigenetic age than their chronological age, Radak told Euronews Next.