DNA methylation is an important epigenetic mechanism in mammalian cells. It occurs almost exclusively at CpG sites and has a key role in a number of biological processes. It plays an important part in regulating chromatin structure and has been best studied for its role in controlling gene expression. In particular, hypermethylation of gene promoters which have high levels of CpG sites, known as CpG islands, leads to gene inactivation. In healthy cells, however, it appears that only a small number of genes are controlled through promoter hypermethylation, such as genes on the inactivated X-chromosome or at imprinted loci, and most promoter-associated CpG islands remain methylation-free regardless of gene expression status. However, a large body of evidence has now shown that this protection from methylation not only breaks down in a number of pathological conditions (e.g. cancer), but also already occurs during the normal process of aging. The present review focuses on the methylation changes that occur during healthy aging and during disease development, and the potential links between them. We focus especially on the extent to which the acquisition of aberrant methylation changes during aging could underlie the development of a number of important age-related pathological conditions.

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