Epigenetics and aging research: Between adult malleability and early life programming

Abstract

Aging research explores the basic biological mechanisms of aging and age-related disease. As the ‘aging society’ is framed as one of today’s grand challenges, particularly in the global North, the field is gaining momentum. Epigenetic approaches have become important for aging research. This article explores which kinds of epistemic and biopolitical formations arise with the integration of epigenetics into aging research. Drawing on literature analysis, participant observation at international conferences in Europe, and interviews with selected speakers, we identify two distinctly different ways in which epigenetics and aging have become linked. On the one hand, epigenetics has become important for research focusing on the continuous biological malleability of aging processes in adults. On the other hand, it is integral to research investigating how early life development programs aging trajectories. These perspectives do not only differ epistemically, but also entail distinctly different visions of possible clinical, social, and political responses to the challenges of the aging society. Particularly, questions of social inequality and the growing health and morbidity gap in late-capitalist Western societies figure differently in each perspective. This shows that epigenetics, rather than moving biological research in one specific direction, can participate in heterogeneous epistemic formations with diverging biopolitical momenta.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For comparison, currently the average percentage of individuals aged 60 or older in Europe is 23.9 per cent and in North America 20.8 per cent (United Nations, 2015, p. 26).

  2. 2.

    This focus in attention is related to a broader shift in reasoning in epidemiology. See Wahlberg and Rose (2015) for a detailed study of this shift.

  3. 3.

    This is well illustrated, for example, by the range of research approaches that are represented in the journal Biogerontology, the official journal of the British Society for Research on Ageing, which publishes genetic studies of possibly aging-related genes in Drosophila alongside physiological studies of measurement methods for muscle strength in elderly patients.

  4. 4.

    At the same time and as part of their articulation work for funding agencies, researchers in such fields might also adopt the label ‘aging research’ for their work on a range of molecular and physiological processes.

  5. 5.

    We are using the Foucauldian terminology “biopolitics” to denote forms of knowing and governing life that affect the distribution of chances to vitality and health within society and hence constitute political formations that “make live and let die” (Foucault, 1978, 2003; Rabinow and Rose, 2003).

  6. 6.

    With authors such as Stephens and Dimond (2016), we understand conferences as important sites of negotiating the directions, frictions, and shared tenets of a research field, as “they offer the opportunity for achievements to be celebrated, reputations to be established, and can simultaneously reflect, and shape, the nature of a field” (Stephens and Dimond, 2016, p. 313).

  7. 7.

    See Lappé and Landecker (2015) for a critique of the simple dichotomy between genetics and epigenetics.

  8. 8.

    While these are the two dominant perspectives represented in the published literature, we do not exclude the possibility that there are other perspectives connecting epigenetics and aging currently emerging that have not yet been visibly published.

  9. 9.

    353 genetic loci in the case of Horvath’s clock (Horvath et al, 2014) and 71 in the case of the clock developed by Hannum et al (2013).

  10. 10.

    Researchers speculate that the effect of the famine on health might persist beyond the directly exposed generations and affect the grand children of women who have experienced the famine. However, this could so far neither be confirmed nor finally refuted (Heijmans et al, 2009).

  11. 11.

    A few but prominent figures in the field are starting to criticize the programming metaphor. Hanson and Gluckman for example propose the term “conditioning” as an alternative to programming as “[m]etaphors, while frequently used in biology, can be problematic if they restrict the challenging of preconceptions […]. The metaphor of ‘programming’ […] accords more with a computer program than the processes of developmental plasticity” (2014, p. 1032).

  12. 12.

    See also Mansfield (2017) who notes about epigenetic futurity: “[W]hat matters in the present is the future, which endlessly recedes. Multiple generations—some of which may never exist—are all folded into what I call the enduring present: the time when future outcomes are set in motion. Further, while the goal is to shape later outcomes, for the individual these outcomes are constantly deferred for their influences on the next generations.” (p. 374).

  13. 13.

    See Mansfield (2012) for similar conclusions with regard to the epigenetics of racial inequalities.

  14. 14.

    Hodgetts et al (2003) offer a compelling analysis of the trope of contrasting the “frail” and “active” elderly on TV as a form of communicating normative expectations of how to age appropriately and responsibly. Similar forms of staging are at play here.

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Acknowledgements

This article comprises original material that is not under review elsewhere, and the study(ies) on which the research is based has been subject to appropriate ethical review. On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest. The authors would like to thank the four anonymous reviewers and the journal editors for their insightful feedback, Martha Kenney and Michael Penkler for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this article, and Michael Holohan for language editing.

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Müller, R., Samaras, G. Epigenetics and aging research: Between adult malleability and early life programming. BioSocieties 13, 715–736 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0091-y

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Keywords

  • epigenetics
  • aging
  • plasticity
  • developmental programming
  • biopolitics
  • social class