Genetic and environmental causes of variation in epigenetic aging across the lifespan

Shuai Li, Tuong L. Nguyen, Ee Ming Wong, Pierre Antoine Dugué, Gillian S. Dite, Nicola J. Armstrong, Jeffrey M. Craig, Karen A. Mather, Perminder S. Sachdev, Richard Saffery, Joohon Sung, Qihua Tan, Anbupalam Thalamuthu, Roger L. Milne, Graham G. Giles, Melissa C. Southey, John L. Hopper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Background: DNA methylation-based biological age (DNAm age) is an important biomarker for adult health. Studies in specific age ranges have found widely varying results about its genetic and environmental causes of variation. However, these studies are not able to provide a comprehensive view of the causes of variation over the lifespan. Results: In order to investigate the genetic and environmental causes of DNAm age variation across the lifespan, we pooled genome-wide DNA methylation data for 4217 people aged 0–92 years from 1871 families. DNAm age was calculated using the Horvath epigenetic clock. We estimated familial correlations in DNAm age for monozygotic (MZ) twin, dizygotic (DZ) twin, sibling, parent–offspring, and spouse pairs by cohabitation status. Genetic and environmental variance components models were fitted and compared. We found that twin pair correlations were − 0.12 to 0.18 around birth, not different from zero (all P > 0.29). For all pairs of relatives, their correlations increased with time spent living together (all P < 0.02) at different rates (MZ > DZ and siblings > parent–offspring; P < 0.001) and decreased with time spent living apart (P = 0.02) at similar rates. These correlation patterns were best explained by cohabitation-dependent shared environmental factors, the effects of which were 1.41 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.16 to 1.66) times greater for MZ pairs than for DZ and sibling pairs, and the latter were 2.03 (95% CI 1.13 to 9.47) times greater than for parent–offspring pairs. Genetic factors explained 13% (95% CI − 10 to 35%) of variation (P = 0.27). Similar results were found for another two epigenetic clocks, suggesting that our observations are robust to how DNAm age is measured. In addition, results for the other clocks were consistent with there also being a role for prenatal environmental factors in determining their variation. Conclusions: Variation in DNAm age is mostly caused by environmental factors, including those shared to different extents by relatives while living together and whose effects persist into old age. The equal environment assumption of the classic twin study might not hold for epigenetic aging.

Original languageEnglish
Article number158
Number of pages12
JournalClinical Epigenetics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


  • Aging
  • Biological age
  • DNA methylation
  • Epigenetic aging
  • Epigenetic clock
  • Twin study

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