Genes Have A Lot Less To Do With Long Life Than We Thought

Groupe of six elderly people on a walk.
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There is no such thing as a life clock. No mystic practicing the dark arts can tell you exactly how long you will live. Even in cases of terminal diseases, doctors aren’t necessarily great at estimating your lifespan. While few believe in the predictive powers of fortune cookies, many put quite a bit more confidence in genetics. But as it turns out, genetics are not particularly good predictors of longevity either, as Wired explains.

“In 2015, the companies inked a research partnership to investigate the human heredity of lifespan, with Ruby leading the charge to sift through Ancestry’s vast forest of family trees. What he found by analyzing the pedigrees of more than 400 million people who lived and died in Europe and America going back to 1800 was that although longevity tends to run in families, your DNA has far less influence on how long you live than previously thought. The results, published Tuesday in the journal Genetics, is the first research to be made public from the collaboration, which ended quietly in July and whose terms remain confidential.”

The breakthrough didn’t come from studying related pairs like mother and daughter or sister and brother. What opened the eyes of the researchers is what they found when studying in-laws. Genetics are not a factor with in-laws. You wouldn’t share large DNA chunks with your sister’s husband or your brother’s wife. But your lifespans are likely to be closely matched.

The complete findings of the research are being held under wraps while it is under peer review. But we are given a few strong hints from what information has been made publicly available from the study.

First, we have a lot more control over how long we live than we owe to the genetic lottery. Second, we should look to factors such as culture, education, homes, healthcare, and diet.

heavy smoker
  By Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock

We tend to look at the outliers and make bad decisions about lifespan. People used to consider how long George Burns lived while famously smoking cigars everyday. They concluded that he had good genes. When rock stars, actors, and other celebrities live a long life despite hard living, some conclude that those factors are not very important.

The study shows that our decisions have the biggest impact on how long we will live. Catherine Ball, Ancestry’s chief scientific officer, quips that her two pieces of advice for a longer life are: don’t smoke, and don’t go to war. When predicting your own lifespan, don’t be too impressed by your ancestors from the old country who all lived to be 100. Unless you live exactly the way that they did, you, like Ball, will need to keep those gym appointments.