HIV-positive people are aging faster than their HIV-negative peers, putting them at earlier risk of things like dementia, osteoporosis, and heart disease, according to a study published last week in Molecular Cell. Researchers looked at 26,927 DNA tags—called methylation—on the genomes of 137 HIV-positive men; these methylation sites had previously been associated with aging, and in reviewing them, researchers "found a striking association with methylation in the HIV+ patients relative to healthy controls," they write. Biologist Trey Ideker tells NPR the method used is "better at predicting when someone will die than their chronological age," and what they found is that men with HIV tended to have a genetic age 4.9 years older than their actual age.
Surprisingly, that was true no matter how long the individual had been living with HIV, STAT reports. The nearly five years of advanced aging seen by HIV-positive men corresponds to a 19% increased risk of death. All of the men studied were being treated for HIV, so it's unclear whether it was the HIV or the antiretroviral drugs that accelerated aging. Dr. Howard Fox, the study's lead author, says he hopes the findings will encourage people with HIV to not only stick with treatment but to focus on their health in other ways, such as exercising and maintaining a healthy diet. The findings are also a sign doctors may want to start screening for age-related diseases earlier in patients with HIV. (Charlie Sheen may have actually raised HIV awareness. Winning.)