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Longevity: The Genetic Component

Updated on August 30, 2011

A study of Danish twins gives us some insights

Long lifespans tend to run in families, and, unfortunately, so do short ones. If your parents lived a long time before passing on, chances are you will too. But why? Have you inherited a predisposition towards a longer life from their DNA, or have you just taken on the various diet and lifestyle factors that we know to prolong life? Let's take a look at the nature vs. nurture debate again.

When Sadie's (top) sister Bessie (bottom) died, she wrote a book: On My Own at 107: Reflections on a Life Without Bessie
When Sadie's (top) sister Bessie (bottom) died, she wrote a book: On My Own at 107: Reflections on a Life Without Bessie

Is our lifespan dictated by nature or nurture?

In short, the answer is both. Genetics play a relatively small component, however; lifestyle and accompanying dietary choices still play the major part in determining how long you're going to live.

How do we know? To examine the genetic component to a group of people's lifespans, we have to be able to remove the genetic factor. The best way to do this is to look at siblings, or, even better, genetically-identical twins. Assuming that they had similar lifestyles, we can reasonably expect that siblings' and twins' lifespans would be similar. Take a look at Kin Narita and Gin Kanie, who died at 107 and 108, respectively, or Sadie and Bessie Delany, who were not identical twins, but still sisters with the same parents, and who lived to the ripe old ages of 109 and 106. But these pairs of sisters also had remarkably similar lifestyles, having even spent a majority of their adult lives together. How much of their remarkable longevity was due to having the same parents, and how much to healthy diets and lifestyles? After all, the Delany sisters themselves attributed their extraordinarily long lives to daily yoga and prayer, cod liver oil, and garlic; neither smoked or drank either.

The study of genetically-identical twins

The most definitive answer to date to this puzzle has come from a study of Danish twins, 2872 pairs born from 1870 to 1900. Some of the twins were identical, having the same genetic foundation, while others were fraternal, having the same parents but a degree of genetic variability common to all non-identical siblings. Using statistical analysis, the researchers were able to derive lifespan heritability (the degree to which a certain factor is genetically inherited) estimates for both men and women: 26% for men, and 23% for women. The remaining approximate three-quarters of our longevity is not heritable; i.e. it is a function of our environment, our lifestyles, and choices we make.

What about that last 25%?

Is it safe to say that the quarter of the factors that determine our longevity is completely out of our hands? Not necessarily. Genetic predispositions towards cancer or heart disease, for example, can be anticipated and dealt with properly. After all, an inherited proclivity towards high cholesterol isn't quite the same death sentence that it was even fifty years ago, as evidenced by falling heart disease and stroke rates (much of the improvement is due to improvements in health care and lifestyle changes). As medical technology and our understanding of the way our bodies work both grow, the extent to which our longevity is just "in the cards" will play a diminishing role in the years and decades to come.


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    • healthystream profile image

      healthystream 6 years ago

      This was something that inspired me a lot. My grandpas died at the age bracket of 68 to 75 years, and my dad's mother died at the age of 82. However, my mom's mother is turning 92 this December and she's still very active. Living a longer like these two sisters is really something.

    • qwark profile image

      qwark 7 years ago

      Informative "hubs" livelonger!

      This info has been out there for some time, but it needs to be promulgated to a greater extent.

      Qwark :-)

    • Drax profile image

      des donnelly 11 years ago from NYC....

      thanks for this Livelonger - it reminded me of the Hunzas, they live remote from the modern world and eat a very simple diet.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 11 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks Iðunn.

    • profile image

      IĆ°unn 11 years ago

      good hub