• epigenetics;
  • aging;
  • MZ twin design;
  • full adult lifespan;
  • DNA methylation;
  • stochastic variation


The accumulation of epigenetic changes was proposed to contribute to the age-related increase in the risk of most common diseases. In this study on 230 monozygotic twin pairs (MZ pairs), aged 18–89 years, we investigated the occurrence of epigenetic changes over the adult lifespan. Using mass spectrometry, we investigated variation in global (LINE1) DNA methylation and in DNA methylation at INS, KCNQ1OT1, IGF2, GNASAS, ABCA1, LEP, and CRH, candidate loci for common diseases. Except for KCNQ1OT1, interindividual variation in locus-specific DNA methylation was larger in old individuals than in young individuals, ranging from 1.2-fold larger at ABCA1 (P = 0.010) to 1.6-fold larger at INS (P = 3.7 × 10−07). Similarly, there was more within-MZ-pair discordance in old as compared with young MZ pairs, except for GNASAS, ranging from an 8% increase in discordance each decade at CRH (P = 8.9 × 10−06) to a 16% increase each decade at LEP (P = 2.0 × 10−08). Still, old MZ pairs with strikingly similar DNA methylation were also observed at these loci. After 10-year follow-up in elderly twins, the variation in DNA methylation showed a similar pattern of change as observed cross-sectionally. The age-related increase in methylation variation was generally attributable to unique environmental factors, except for CRH, for which familial factors may play a more important role. In conclusion, sustained epigenetic differences arise from early adulthood to old age and contribute to an increasing discordance of MZ twins during aging.