Health News

HIV-positive adults show early signs of aging, even after antiretroviral therapy

By Brian P. Dunleavy   |   Oct. 22, 2020 at 4:12 PM
People with HIV still show higher levels of cellular aging than those without the virus, even after two years of antiviral treatment, a new study has found. Photo by analogicus/Pixabay

Oct. 22 (UPI) -- People with HIV may experience aging-related illnesses, such as heart disease and brain disorders, earlier than those without the virus, even if they have been on antiretroviral therapy, a study published Thursday by the journal Pathogens and Immunity found.

The analysis, which compared 15 HIV-positive adults on antiretroviral therapy to 15 age-matched people without the virus, found that those being treated with the drugs showed increased evidence of cellular aging, the researchers said.

Antiretroviral therapies, or ART, are intended to slow the progression of HIV and reduce the level of the virus in the body.

While ART has led to people with HIV living longer, they are still at higher risk for having a "reduced healthspan" -- or developing age-related health complications -- than those without the virus, according to the researchers.

"Most individuals living with HIV probably already know that they are facing more health challenges than their uninfected peers, so the main takeaway from this study is that we're now beginning to better understand why that is," study co-author Beth D. Jamieson told UPI.

"It's clear that the antiretroviral therapies aren't causing this aging acceleration. It appears to be the virus and ... the antiretroviral therapies appear to help reverse some of this aging, but the changes are less robust and much slower than we'd like to see," said Jamieson, a professor of medicine in the division of hematology and oncology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.

About 1.4 million adults in the United States have HIV, and nearly 40,000 are diagnosed with the virus each year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Research suggests that ART drugs bolster the immune systems of those with the disease, allowing them to better fight off infections and, effectively, enabling them to live close-to-normal lifespans.

However, treated HIV-infected adults still experience earlier declines in physical functions, as well as higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, kidney failure, liver cancer and neurological disorders than otherwise healthy adults, Jamieson and her colleagues said.

For their research, the UCLA-based team assessed 30 study participants -- 15 receiving ART for HIV and 15 healthy controls -- for signs of cellular aging. DNA samples collected from all study subjects were analyzed using the epigenetic clock, a biochemical test used to measure aging.

In the HIV-positive participants, DNA samples were collected at three points -- six months to one year before starting ART, six to 12 months after beginning treatment and 18 to 24 months later.

Before starting ART, the DNA participants with HIV all had significantly higher levels of four measures for cellular aging -- age acceleration residual, extrinsic epigenetic age acceleration, phenotypic epigenetic age acceleration and Grim epigenetic age acceleration -- than the uninfected adults, the researchers said.

That remained true six to 12 months after the HIV-positive participants started ART. However, 18 to 24 months after starting therapy, only levels of residual and extrinsic epigenetic age acceleration remained higher in those with HIV, the analysis showed.

"We've identified tools that will allow us to ask important questions like which genes and pathways might be involved in some of the clinical outcomes that are seen in people living, and aging, with HIV, which could point the way to new therapeutics," Jamieson said.

"We may even be able to find ways that people living with HIV, or their doctors, can reverse their epigenetic aging [through] diet, exercise and having a good support system," she said.