Do Your Family Genes Impact Longevity?

Published January 10, 2019
Research suggests that there is a relationship between parent and offspring longevity. Environmental factors play a role as well.

If you have a family history of long-living relatives then you probably feel lucky to have such good genes. But is there any truth to the idea that your relatives’ longevity is related to your own? We took a look at a number of studies and prominent researchers’ work to get to the bottom of anchoring and longevity.

But first things first: what is anchoring? Anchoring is the use of possibly irrelevant information as a reference for evaluating or estimating some unknown value or information. In the case of longevity, if your parents are 90 and 95 year old, you may believe that you’re likely to live until your 90’s. Just how true is this notion? Based on research, it’s complicated.

The Framingham Study

According to Dr. Michael Roizen even the three most extensive studies regarding the relationship between parental and offspring longevity (The Framingham Study, the “Termite” Study, and the Alameda County Study) show minimal correlation. Of these studies, the most comprehensive of the three, the Framingham Study, concludes merely a 6% correlation between the lifespan of parents and their offspring. This is to say that if your parent surpasses age 75, then your chances of doing so do increase, but only ever so slightly.

The Aging Gene

However, other research suggests that there is, in fact, a relationship between parent and offspring longevity, but the key to the correlation transcends merely the number of years the parent lives. Instead, researcher Jan A. Staessen and her colleagues point to telomere length as the ‘aging gene’ your parents can pass down. Telomeres are cap-like structures that sit on the tips of your chromosomes, protecting your genetic information. Over time, they inevitably shorten, and scientists believe the shortening of telomeres is a critical feature of cellular aging and illness. Sex, age, and smoking are all highly indicative of telomere length, with males, smokers, and the elderly having typically shorter telomeres than their counterparts. According to Staessen’s research, maternal telomere length has a far stronger correlation to offspring telomere length, compared to the correlation with paternal telomere length. It’s thought that this is because the ‘aging gene’ lives on the X chromosome. Since women have two X chromosomes, and males only one, female telomeres hold more weight in determining the telomere length, or ‘aging gene’, of the offspring.

Longevity Genes

Staessen and her colleagues are not the only researchers to identify a possible ‘aging gene’. Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in a study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, point to a variation of the ‘aging gene’, which they’ve identified as ‘longevity genes’. The study examined the habits and histories of a group of centenarians, people age 95-112 years. The scientists found that the early-life habits and the amount of harmful genes, related to age-related illness, were no better in the centenarians than in the general population, yet they were outliving the rest of the population by decades! Instead, it seems that centenarians possess genes that buffer against the harmful effects of unhealthy habits, namely poor diet, lack of exercise, and even smoking. Scientists concluded that, although these genes aren’t magical, they could allow you to eat, drink, smoke, and act like a couch-potato, while still outliving the rest of us. But we don’t suggest relying on your relatives genes; diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle are still incredibly important.

Environmental Factors

Though there are hereditary factors and lifestyle choices that can impact your longevity, it’s important to note that environmental factors play a role, as well. One external factor of concern is with regard to the growing gap between white-collar and blue-collar longevity. In recent years white-collar workers have made life expectancy gains at twice the rate of those of blue-collar workers. Specifically, in the past 15 years the life expectancy of white-collar males age 65 has increased 3 years, whereas that of blue-collar males, age 65, has risen less than 2 years. With white-collar workers living longer, and extending their lifespan at a faster rate than their blue-collar counterparts, the longevity gap, which is already at 2.5 years, will continue to widen. According to researchers at the Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health this longevity gap is the result of a demanding economy, requiring people to work longer hours for more years. For the physically taxing blue-collar jobs, these demands take a toll on the workers’ health and longevity.

The Key May Be Healthy Living

What’s interesting is that, despite harmful realities like long working years, and, of course, the current obesity epidemic, people are enjoying healthier lifestyles, and longer life expectancies than ever before. Back in 1970 the average American was living to, approximately, age 70. Today, that figure has risen to 79 years old! We have better living conditions, better medical care access and technology, greater knowledge harmful substances, and, for the most part, healthy lifestyle choices to thank for the longer, and better quality, lives we live. However, longevity is a complicated puzzle with tons of pieces we have yet to find. We’ve made great gains in knowledge in recent years, but, even so, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Matt Carey

Matt Carey

Financial Planning Professional

Matt Carey is the co-founder and CEO of Blueprint Income. He believes in the power of technology to make retirement simpler. Matt is a regular contributor to Forbes.com and has been quoted in both the New York Times and Morningstar.

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