Study Links Sexual Minority Stress with Cellular Aging Among Gay Men with HIV and Recent Methamphetamine Use

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In a new study, researchers in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine examined the association between accelerated cellular aging in gay men and sexual minority stress, a unique type of stress related to discrimination, stigma, concealment of sexual identity, prejudice, and even anticipation of prejudice in sexual minority men (e.g., gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men).

Conceptual model for the effects of sexual minority stress on cellular aging

The study, titled “Sexual Minority Stress and Cellular Aging in Methamphetamine-Using Sexual Minority Men with Treated HIV," was recently published in the online Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine.

“The biological processes of aging on the cellular level have been investigated in different organs and immune cells, or leukocytes,” said Delaram Ghanooni, M.D., M.P.H., study co-author and doctoral student in prevention science at the Miller School.

“In this study, we measured DNA methylation on leukocytes to index markers of cellular aging. DNA changes, such as excess methylated regions on certain genetic sequences and shortened ends of chromosomes — known as telomeres — can be used as markers of accelerated biological age in immune cells,” Dr. Ghanooni said.

Method

Researchers used the concept of sexual minority stress as another predictor for the outcomes related to cellular aging.

The study included 52 sexual minority men living with HIV who also had biologically confirmed recent methamphetamine use. All participants completed assessments for sexual minority stress and openness about their sexual minority status (i.e., “outness” or disclosing sexual orientation).

Results

Researchers found that even among men with treated HIV drug adherence, the experience of sexual minority stress is associated with cellular aging.

“We found that this could be contributing to cellular aging processes associated with higher rates of chronic disorders despite effective HIV treatment,” said co-author Adam Carrico, Ph.D., professor of public health sciences and psychology and director of the Division of Prevention Science and Community Health. “The good news is that being out about one’s sexual identity could counteract cellular aging and inflammation to some extent.”

Dr. Ghanooni said that the finding is important because it can inform the design, evaluation, and implementation of interventions that target not only HIV treatment adherence and persistence, but also elements of this specific type of chronic stress affecting sexual minority men.

“We also know from research that among people living with HIV (PWH), non-AIDS defining chronic disorders tend to appear in younger ages when compared to the general population,” Dr. Ghanooni said. “Although the concept of constant immune activation in the context of a treated HIV infection can partially explain these heightened rates, it still fails to fully describe why PWH demonstrate such accelerated epigenetic aging.”

Dr. Ghanooni is working on another research project to examine predictors of changes in leukocyte telomere length over 15 months in sexual minority men living with HIV.

Other UM collaborators include Renessa Williams, Ph.D., R.N.; Tiffany R. Glynn, M.P.H.; Savita Pahwa, M.D.; Suresh Pallikkuth, Ph.D.; Margaret E. Roach, Ph.D.; and Samantha Dilworth, M.S.

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