TILDA researchers secure $4.5m for latest study, with international partners

Posted on: 09 November 2020

Researchers at the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), at Trinity College Dublin and international research partners have secured a highly competitive US-Ireland R&D Partnership Programme Award, worth $4.5 million to investigate how social circumstances and life adversity impacts the epigenome and our health outcomes as we age.

This project initiative (‘Social Circumstances and Epigenomics Promoting Health in Three Countries’) saw applicants from the United States, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland collaborate to submit a single, joint ‘tri-partite’ proposal to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The award will strengthen international research to examine how social circumstances and life challenges impact the epigenome and health in later years and is supported by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Health Research Board (HRB).

This unique collaboration will examine social, economic, health and epigenetic data from three national studies of ageing in the family of Health and Retirement studies – the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the Northern Ireland Cohort for the Longitudinal Study of Ageing (NICOLA), and the Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing (TILDA).

What is epigenetic change and how does it affect how we age?

The epigenome represents the interface between our genes and our environment and may help determine the rate at which we age. Epigenetic change is considered one of the hallmarks of ageing and has been shown to be affected by lifestyle and other environmental factors that hasten the ageing process.

In recent years, investigators have developed epigenetic clocks to provide a measure of our biological, as opposed to our chronological age. This project will advance the science by exploring how life circumstances in both childhood and adulthood affect epigenetic change and how different historical and life-course events influences the rate at which we age, using large nationally representative datasets. The project will also examine whether epigenetic changes are a cause or a consequence of ageing, and whether they can be used as a prognostic tool for identifying early health decline. This trans-national project will involve researchers at Trinity College Dublin working alongside colleagues at the University of Michigan, the University of Southern California, the University of Minnesota, the University of California Los Angeles, Yale University, and Queen’s University Belfast.

The US-Ireland partnership provides a unique opportunity to significantly strengthen international longitudinal studies in this area, developing a wealth of research across three countries, enabling a better understanding of the impact of epigenetics on health outcomes at older ages.  By drawing on harmonised data from three different countries and comparing findings, the researchers can closely examine how different historical, social and behavioral characteristics  – which operate in different health policy regimes – may result in similar or contrasting patterns of associations with epigenetic change, and how this impacts upon health trajectories in later life.

Professor Rose Anne Kenny, Principal Investigator of TILDA, Head of Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin and project lead said:

TILDA is delighted to continue further collaboration with our US and NI colleagues in this new initiative, to better understand how life adversity impacts the epigenome and our health outcomes as we age. Our shared expertise and wealth of research available from 10 years of the TILDA study, brings a unique insight into the social circumstances and determinants of health outcomes and the possibility of modifiable risk factors. Multimorbidity, frailty, and disability remain a significant challenge for the individual, families, governments, and policymakers. We look forward to contributing our expertise alongside our international counterparts, harmonising and strengthening analytical measures, and acquiring a better understanding of how life course social circumstances influence epigenetic change and subsequent health in later life. This will provide us with new approaches for prevention, and possibly treatment.

Dr Cathal McCrory, Assistant Professor in Psychology at TILDA and project co-investigator said:

Individuals from more disadvantaged social backgrounds develop diseases earlier and die earlier on average compared with their more advantaged counterparts. We want to understand the biological mechanisms through which disadvantaged status ‘gets under the skin’ to accelerate the ageing process. Epigenetic alterations resulting from life course exposure to privation and psychosocial stress may provide part of the puzzle.

Dr Aisling O’Halloran, Senior Research Fellow at TILDA and project co-investigator said:

 Epigenetic alterations are considered a primary hallmark of biological ageing, a more accurate marker of healthy ageing and age-related disease risk than simply chronological age. This project will contribute unique longitudinal data on epigenetic measures and will be an invaluable addition to the TILDA dataset providing an enhanced research resource for scientists and clinicians in Ireland and internationally who study the biology of how we age.

Research reported in this press release was supported by the National Institute of Health under award 1R01AG068937-01 to the value of $4.6 million. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Media Contact:

Ciara O’Shea, Media Relations Officer | coshea9@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4337