If you have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), you might also have other medical problems that are usually only experienced by older people. Even though there’s been a lot of research on the subject, doctors are still trying to understand how HIV accelerates the aging process. One thing’s for certain: scientists seem to agree that having HIV does mean you’ll age faster than someone without the disease. So how does HIV speed up the aging process? There are several theories being explored.
If you have HIV, much of the current research shows you’re probably more at risk for age-related issues like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis compared to people living without HIV. Scientists have begun to discover these issues may be caused by metabolic changes occurring within your body. These types of changes happen when your body alters the way it uses food to give you energy.
More than half of all HIV-positive patients develop abnormal patterns of fat distribution. You might have noticed your fat tissue moving away from your face, arms, legs, and buttocks and into the center of your body in places like your belly. This type of fat distribution has been linked to increased inflammation and other cardiovascular risk factors, like higher cholesterol levels. These factors can lead to complications like heart attack or stroke at an earlier age.
If you have HIV, you’re also more likely to develop diabetes earlier in life because your body doesn’t respond as well to insulin. Again, abnormal fat distribution is responsible for lowering your body’s ability to use insulin effectively. Other research has shown that if you have HIV, you might have higher levels of certain inflammatory proteins that increase your risk for developing diabetes.
One of the biggest advances in the treatment of HIV has been the creation of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) medications. These drugs have the ability to significantly increase your life expectancy, but they might also play a role in premature aging.
Recent research has shown HAART medications can cause adverse effects on your body’s mitochondria. The mitochondria are what powers every cell in your body – they are specialized cellular components responsible for giving each of your cells the energy they need to survive. Mitochondria also tell your cells when it’s time to stop functioning – that is, they’re naturally preprogramed to begin the process of ending a cell’s life cycle at the appropriate time.
Studies suggest certain HAART drugs may damage the DNA located inside each mitochondrion by causing certain mutations that are usually only seen later in life. These DNA mutations trigger certain cellular processes typically seen in older people. Eventually, the mutations result in the death of the mitochondria and the premature death of the cell in which it’s based.
When something causes a change to your DNA, like an environmental influence or the aging process itself, it’s called an epigenic change. We now know the HIV virus can cause epigenic changes by adding certain molecular structures onto your DNA in a process called methylation.
In HIV-negative individuals, methylation is a normal, natural part of the aging process. Methylation occurs over time in healthy individuals, and it’s one way to measure the age of a person’s DNA. However, scientists have now found that methylation occurs at a faster rate in HIV-positive patients than it does in HIV-negative individuals.
When scientists measured levels of methylation, they saw that the accelerated rate of methylation caused HIV-positive patients to age approximately 4.9 years faster than those without the disease. Another study found that rates of methylation accelerated aging by as much as 14.7 years. Since the HIV virus fundamentally changes DNA, patients experience health issues common to older people much sooner than expected.
Even though we’re still working to find out exactly how HIV speeds up the aging process, we’re already beginning to understand how the virus changes the way your body ages. If you have HIV, you might age faster than others because of multiple factors that can cause aging to speed up. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for advice if you have concerns about your diagnosis, or questions about age-related changes you may be experiencing.