Good Genes vs. Good Habits: Which Impacts Your Longevity More?

When it comes to living to a ripe old age, ‘good genes’ play an important role, but may only get you so far — and for many of us that’s welcome news. In fact, recent[1] research has revealed that only 20 to 30% of longevity is influenced by genes, suggesting the rest can be attributed to our habits and environment — things like whether you exercise regularly, get enough sleep, or smoke cigarettes.

Reference Lab

DEC 10, 2020

Before we get into the specifics of what that means for you, let’s unpack longevity.

01Why longevity matters

Longevity[2] is defined as the length of the human lifespan. While sometimes used interchangeably with life expectancy, there is an important distinction. Life expectancy is a statistical measure of the average number of years persons born in the same year can expect to live, and it’s based on age-specific mortality rates. So while lifespan is the number of years you’ll actually live, life expectancy is, just as it sounds, the number of years you’re expected to live.

For much of the 1900s, life expectancy held high importance — if you knew you were going to live to age 55, you’d plan your life out accordingly. But as life expectancies climbed (currently in the U.S., life expectancy is 81 years for women and 76 years for men), scientists who study aging became increasingly interested in the underlying biology of longevity, and the potential to extend it even further.

OneFact The C. elegans, a 1.5mm long nematode worm, has long been considered by scientists the ideal model organisms for studying longevity in the lab. Why? They live just two weeks and during that time display obvious signs of aging, including reduced movement, reproductive decline, muscle loss, and even skin wrinkles.[7]

02A closer look at longevity genes

Discoveries over the past 30 years offer clues into how genes impact longevity in humans, but there is still much to understand, for one: how they might contribute to healthier, longer lives. As mentioned earlier, up to 30 percent of the variation in human lifespan is determined by genetics, but which genes and how they contribute to longevity is still a developing area of science.

Looking at centenarians, or people who live to age 100 and beyond (you may also see them referred to as “super agers”), for instance, a few of the associated variations (called Polymorphism Polymorphism involves one of two or more variants of a particular DNA sequence. The most common type of polymorphism involves variation at a single base pair [ + ] read more ) are found in the APOE The APOE gene provides instructions for making a protein called apolipoprotein E... This protein combines with fats... [ + ] read more , FOXO3 This gene likely functions as a trigger for apoptosis through expression of genes necessary for cell death. [ + ] read more , and CETP Involved in the transfer of neutral lipids, including cholesteryl ester and triglyceride, among lipoprotein particles. [ + ] read more [3]genes, but they are not found in all people with exceptional longevity. Recent findings[4] suggest that it is likely that variations in multiple genes — some of which are yet to be identified — may act together to offer protection against cancer, dementia, heart disease and other age-related diseases and promote longevity.

Based on these and other findings, scientists believe that a person may inherit certain genetic variations that either predispose them to diseases that shorten longevity or shield them from disease, thereby increasing longevity. The Leiden Longevity Study, published more than a decade and a half ago, found that the offspring of centenarians have lower chances of age-related diseases and exhibit a more youthful profile of metabolism and age-related inflammation than others of the same age and gender.

02These 6 habits can lengthen your life

Genes aren’t the full story: Good habits play an undisputed role in influencing longevity. That means that how well you’ll age and how long you’ll live are, in part, up to you. While there is no guaranteed formula for exceptional longevity, these six activities — in addition to avoiding smoking and consuming alcohol in moderation — have been shown over time in multiple studies to promote healthier living for longer:

  • Make your plate Mediterranean.Eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, and low on red meat is proven to decrease cardiovascular mortality. A 2020 study in the journal Gut[8] found that following a Mediterranean diet for just one year slowed the development of age-related inflammatory processes.
  • Nurture your inner circle. A 2019 study[9] found that social relationships significantly increase longevity in older adults. And a long-running Harvard study concluded that healthy friendships appear to have a protective effect on the brain.
  • Exercise a little, or a lot. No surprises here: Regular exercise can add years to your life, according to countless studies — and even small doses count. A 2015 review[11] observed a 22% lower risk of early death in participants who worked out less than the recommended 150 minutes per week.
  • Go nuts. Not only are they full of protein, fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, one study[12] found that eating three servings of nuts a week reduced the participants’ risk of premature death by 39%.
  • Get enough sleep. Too little and too much sleep are linked to a shorter lifespan. Researchers consistently say that getting seven to eight hours a night can keep your heart healthy, prevent cancer, improve memory, reduce your risk of depression, among other benefits[13].
  • Keep stress in check. Here’s a good reason to prioritize self care: In a recent study,[14] heavy stress shortened the life expectancy of 30-year-old women by 2.3 years, and by 2.8 for their male counterparts.
  • Vitamin E - A powerful antioxidant in the skin shown to help reduce UV damage in the skin.