The average teenager might feel and act as if they are immortal, but the research is not on their side, as was highlighted in a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics by New Zealand’s University of Otago Medical School. The research showed three key health trends prevalent in young people were linked to greater amounts of bodily inflammation and oxidative stress.
From cigarette smoke to urban air pollution to mental stress—all these environmental exposure factors compound over years. This causes damage to the body’s cells and can be a leading factor in premature ageing, chronic illnesses and even cancer. This phenomenon has recently been dubbed among health researchers as the field of exposomes, investigating how environmental exposures interact and accumulate. Much of this field is yet to be fully understood—with many past studies focussing on occupational hazards, usually chemical or biological in nature. However, it’s becoming more important to be aware of the less obvious exposures which are prevalent in day-to-day life, affecting children and adults alike.
The JAMA-published study analysed four conditions: smoking, obesity, psychological disorders, and asthma—and found data based on the ageing factors of walking speed, facial age, brain age, and overall ageing pace. Children aged 11, 13, and 15 were used as research participants, tracking data from 1983 to 2021 to get a complete picture of how ageing signs changed over time. Asthma was found to have no effect on accelerated ageing, but the other conditions had significant effects.
We’ve known for decades that smoking is detrimental to physical health, however that doesn’t seem to stop young people from picking up the habit. The researchers at the University of Otago found that 7% of 11-year-olds had smoked a cigarette at least once, and that 14% of participants had acquired a daily habit by the age of 15. Of those who smoked regularly, effects over 30 years were significantly greater than the other conditions. This is likely due to cigarette ingredients and smoke having a direct effect on cellular physiology and gene expression.
Social and environmental pressures among young people are often contributing factors to adolescent drug use, and smoking is no exception. It is pertinent that young people are given education about the lifetime effects of drugs and provided with appropriate outlets to social pressure or mental health conditions that may exacerbate drug usage.
Obesity was defined in this study by measuring a Body Mass Index (BMI) in the 95th percentile for the age of the child. It can often be a symptom of low metabolism, hormonal imbalances, or a lack of physical activity, and is known to contribute to other major health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or obstructive sleep apnea.
The study found that obesity alone sped up the pace of ageing, slowed down gait speed, and increased facial age, but did not cause faster brain ageing.
Obesity and smoking in tandem can cause heightened oxidative stress—damaging cellular structure, increasing bodily inflammation, and raising chances of contracting heart disease or suffering a stroke. Obesity can also be a symptom of psychological disorders, which together can compound the mental and physical impacts.
You may think that depression and other psychological disorders just affect the brain. However, the effects of these conditions, caused by chemical disturbances and brain physiology, can become systemic illnesses that can affect all areas of the body. They can cause all sorts of physical effects such as poor motor function, chemical imbalances, decreased physical activity levels, and susceptibility to substance abuse.
The study included anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which, strangely enough, were found to exacerbate all ageing signs except for brain age. However, none of the participants were taking stabilising medication, and mental healthcare in the 1980’s was far less robust than the current day. The researchers hope that if a similar study was conducted now, participants would be receiving proper treatment for their mental health conditions, which may combat the ageing effects.
When left untreated, all these conditions are linked to greater amounts of inflammation and oxidative stress which damage the body’s cells. The conditions also have been found to work independently, allowing the health effects to compound. These in turn can cause accelerated physical and cognitive ageing and present a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Many of these conditions have effects on a cellular level, changing individual DNA nucleotides through a process called methylation. This DNA methylation is measurable and is often used as an additional way to compare biological and chronological age. As more epigenetic research is undertaken, we may be able reverse this methylation process, and with that, reverse its effects on ageing.
Regular physical activity has been shown to counter brain shrinkage and other factors caused by inflammation. It can also stabilise your mood by stimulating dopamine receptors, helping combat some symptoms of mental health disorders.
Behavioural and environmental factors are also vital to preventing these conditions, by encouraging better health outcomes through education, accessible healthcare, and support for young people when times are tough.
At Chemwatch we look out for all sorts of exposure hazards, informed by our in-house chemical experts. We have a library of past webinars covering global safety regulations, software training, accredited courses, and labelling requirements. Keep an eye on our Webinar calendar for all of these and more, including a special Exposome series coming soon.