Race to find out why Generation Z are ageing faster than they should: How ... trends now

Race to find out why Generation Z are ageing faster than they should: How ... trends now
Race to find out why Generation Z are ageing faster than they should: How ... trends now

Race to find out why Generation Z are ageing faster than they should: How ... trends now

It's a complaint which has gone viral on social media: Generation Z, it is claimed, are 'ageing like milk'. In posts viewed millions of times on video-sharing app TikTok, the eye-catching theory is that a generation of young adults, all under the age of 27, already look older than the generation before them, Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996).

One of the first to notice was influencer Jordan Howlett who, aged just 26, confessed to his 12 million followers that he was routinely mistaken for his mother's older brother.

'We live in a time when Millennials look way younger for their age, while Gen Z looks older,' he said in a TikTok video. 'I'm Gen Z and no one ever believes me. It is mainly because of the stress.' 

It sounds, admittedly, like vanity. But last week, scientists appeared to suggest there may be at least some truth in what has, until now, been an entertaining theory.

Influencer Jordan Howlett, aged just 26, confessed to his 12 million followers that he was routinely mistaken for his mother's older brother

Influencer Jordan Howlett, aged just 26, confessed to his 12 million followers that he was routinely mistaken for his mother's older brother

Research published at an international cancer conference revealed that young people diagnosed with certain types of cancer – especially lung, gastrointestinal and uterine cancers – were more likely to have evidence of what the researchers described as 'accelerated ageing'.

Put simply, the age of the cells in their bodies – known as their biological age – was significantly greater than their actual age.

This is an emerging area of science and reflects wear and tear on the body from things such as lifestyle, diet, environment and stress.

Intriguingly, the US researchers involved in the study said there was 'strong evidence' that the risk of accelerated ageing, and therefore of developing cancer, increased with each successive generation born after 1965.

And that may mean Gen Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 who are becoming young adults today – are at a far greater risk of developing potentially deadly diseases such as cancer at a much earlier stage than their parents or grandparents.

It raises a fascinating question: is it possible that what is being observed on TikTok is the thin end of the wedge? Could Gen Z be ageing faster than previous generations?

Professor Ilaria Bellantuono, co-director of the Healthy Lifespan Institute at the University of Sheffield, is one of many who believe it's at least plausible.

'The easiest answer is that, at the moment, we don't know enough to say for certain that younger generations are ageing faster or why,' she says. 'That research hasn't been done. But it's not impossible. We are seeing more disease in younger people, the kinds of diseases we might normally expect to be developing in older adults.

'And biological ageing is a risk factor for those diseases. In the same way that smokers increase their risk of lung cancer, so too does accelerated ageing increase the risk of developing more multiple long-term chronic conditions.'

Certainly, in terms of cancer, diagnoses were once rarely seen in the under-50s. But today, scientists have become troubled by a growing epidemic of early-onset tumours in populations around the world. The Princess of Wales, who revealed her own diagnosis of cancer at the age of 42, is one of them.

The statistics are stark: between the early 1990s and 2018, cancer among 25 to 49-year-olds in the UK increased by 22 per cent – a bigger shift than any other age group, and more than twice the nine per cent increase in over-75s.

What has triggered this remains unclear. It has been attributed to a complex interaction between genetics, lifestyle, diet and environmental factors.

But the latest study from the US adds compelling further detail.

The researchers, from the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, used data from the UK Biobank – which contains medical and genetic information for half a million UK adults – and looked at measurements in the blood associated with biological age, including proteins produced by the liver and the size of red blood cells.

Those with the most significant biological ageing had twice the risk of early-onset lung cancer, were more than 60 per cent more likely to develop a gastrointestinal tumour and had an 80 per cent higher risk of uterine cancer. A similar pattern was found with bowel cancer by University of Bristol researchers last year. They found, for every extra year of biological age over actual age, the risk of bowel cancer increased by 12 per cent.

The youngest participants in the US study were 37, but evidence suggests this ageing phenomenon is only worsening with time.

An investigation led by epidemiologist Dr Shuji Ogino, from Harvard University, noted cancer rates have been steadily rising since the mid-20th Century. 'Since 1950, we found that each successive generation has a higher risk of early-onset cancer,' he said.

In young, healthy people, cells can usually repair and renew themselves. But as they age – either naturally or prematurely – this process can become dysfunctional.

Cells can accumulate damage which they are unable to repair, and turn into 'zombie cells' which can drive inflammation and the development of disease. It's not just cancer this causes.

An epidemic of vaping among the young may well be driving at least some of the premature ageing

An epidemic of vaping among the young may well be driving at least some of the premature ageing

NHS data analysed by the MoS reveals a 38 per cent rise in the number of under-40s treated for heart attacks in a decade, from 1,730 in 2012/13 to 2,396 in 2022/23. The biggest rise – 89 per cent - was in 20–24-year-olds.

It's similar for type 2 diabetes. The latest National Diabetes Audit, published in December, shows that the numbers being diagnosed rose 11.6 per cent between 2017 and 2022. But it's worse in the young. In under-40s the rise is 18.7 per cent, and 21 per cent in 19 to 25-year-olds.

Astonishingly, the number of under-12s with the chronic condition has rocketed 66 per cent in four years (although the numbers are still small, from 90 to 150). Research has found accelerated ageing plays a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. In one study, adults with the condition had a biological age 12 years higher than adults without the condition.

Professor Naveed Sattar, an expert

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