The epigenetic clock, in particular epigenetic pre-aging quantified by the so-called DNA methylation age acceleration, has recently been suggested to closely correlate with a variety of disease phenotypes. There remains a dearth of data, however, on its association with telomere length and frailty, which can be considered major correlates of age on the genomic and clinical level, respectively.
In this cross-sectional observational study on altogether 1820 subjects from two subsets (n = 969 and n = 851; mean ± standard deviation age 62.1 ± 6.5 and 63.0 ± 6.7 years, respectively) of the ESTHER cohort study of the elderly general population in Germany, DNA methylation age was calculated based on a 353 loci predictor previously developed in a large meta-study, and the difference-based epigenetic age acceleration was calculated as predicted methylation age minus chronological age. No correlation of epigenetic age acceleration with telomere length was found in our study (p = 0.63). However, there was an association of DNA methylation age acceleration with a comprehensive frailty measure, such that the accumulated deficits significantly increased with increasing age acceleration. Quantitatively, about half an additional deficit was added per 6 years of methylation age acceleration (p = 0.0004). This association was independent from age, sex, and estimated leukocyte distribution, as well as from a variety of other confounding variables considered.
The results of the present study suggest that epigenetic age acceleration is correlated with clinically relevant aging-related phenotypes through pathways unrelated to cellular senescence as assessed by telomere length. Innovative approaches like Mendelian randomization will be needed to elucidate whether epigenetic age acceleration indeed plays a causal role for the development of clinical phenotypes.