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The British researchers looked specifically at mutations in blood stem cells.
"Over time, the probability of these cells acquiring mutations rises," co-lead author Thomas McKerrell, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said in an institute news release. "What surprised us was that we found these mutations in such a large proportion of elderly people," he added.
In the study, researchers looked at more than 4,200 people without any evidence of blood cancer. They found that up to 20 percent of people aged 50 to 60, and more than 70 percent of people older than 90, have blood cells with the same gene changes seen in leukemia.
Just carrying a particular mutation doesn't mean that a leukemia is guaranteed, however.
"Leukemia results from the gradual accumulation of DNA mutations in blood stem cells, in a process that can take decades," McKerrell explained.
"This study helps us understand how aging can lead to leukemia, even though the great majority of people will not live long enough to accumulate all the mutations required to develop the disease," he said.
Study senior author George Vassiliou, of the Sanger Institute and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, agreed.
"These mutations will be harmless for the majority of people, but for a few unlucky carriers they will take the body on a journey towards leukemia," he said. With the new study, "we are now beginning to understand the major landmarks on that journey," Vassiliou explained.
The study was published Feb. 26 in the journal Cell Reports.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, news release, Feb. 26, 2015