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 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.
DEC 10, 2020
Before we get into the specifics of what that means for you, let’s unpack longevity.
01Why longevity matters
Longevity 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 how we can increase the healthier years of our lives to extend not just our lifespan, but our healthspan, 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.
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 genome.gov ) are found in the APOE The APOE gene provides instructions for making a protein called apolipoprotein E... This protein combines with fats... [ + ] read more medlineplus.gov , FOXO3 This gene likely functions as a trigger for apoptosis through expression of genes necessary for cell death. [ + ] read more genecards.org , and CETP Involved in the transfer of neutral lipids, including cholesteryl ester and triglyceride, among lipoprotein particles. [ + ] read more uniprot.org genes, but they are not found in all people with exceptional longevity. Recent findings 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.
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 five activities 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 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 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 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 found that eating three servings of nuts a week reduced the participants’ risk of premature death by 39%.
- Vitamin E - A powerful antioxidant in the skin shown to help reduce UV damage in the skin.
03These 5 Habits Can Negatively Impact Your Longevity
- Not enough nighttime Z’s. 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.
- Overwhelmed with stress. Here’s a good reason to prioritize self care: In a recent study, heavy stress shortened the life expectancy of 30-year-old women by 2.3 years, and by 2.8 for their male counterparts.
- Too much alcohol. It’s no secret that alcohol consumption can negatively impact your lifespan, notably by targeting several important organ systems in the body. A glass of wine at dinner won’t hurt, but be wary of excessive consumption.
- A puff too many - Smoking. A known counterpart of alcohol use is smoking, and for good reason; it’s now understood that smoking can actually lower your lifespan by up to 10 years.
- Too much screen time. While the extra hour of your favorite show can be so tempting, it may actually be affecting your longevity. More screen time has been linked with a lower sleep quality, which ultimately has system-wide negative effects, from impacting the heart to limiting your memory. Using your laptop or phone more often is also typically accompanied by poorer posture and less time devoted to healthier habits.
04Where do we see the most positive influences on longevity?
The nurture vs. nature argument is one of the most profound debates in science today — are we shaped more by our DNA (nature) or by our environment and lifestyle (nurture)? As we have discussed, both have a large impact on longevity; geography, in particular, has been found to play a critical role.
Longevity in relation to geography has long been studied; the results of this research demonstrate defining pockets of higher life expectancy. Now you may be wondering, what do these regions have that others don’t?
One of the most notable high-longevity regions of the world is in Japan, with an estimated life expectancy of nearly 85 years. Not only is this one of the highest in the world, it also shows no signs of decreasing. This is largely due to a lower risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease as a result of a healthy diet of seafood, legumes, and minimal red meat. This is further bolstered by a well-established healthcare system that has helped reduce child and female mortality rates and educate the general public about healthy lifestyle choices.
Many other countries with higher-than-average longevity scores, such as Canada and the United States of America, also have a more established health care system, greater access to healthy food, and lower day-to-day stress due to the availability of these resources. With these systems in place, it is much easier to practice the five healthy habits we discussed earlier.
- ‘Good genes’ can have a positive impact on longevity, but only to a certain extent; good habits actually play a much larger role in extending the healthier years of life and your lifespan.
- Several genes have been discovered in relation to protection against various age-related diseases and early-onset inflammation.
- Being mindful of your physical, mental, and social health can do wonders for your longevity.
- Countries around the world with a higher emphasis on healthy foods, exercise, and a more expansive healthcare system are known as longevity pockets, due to the above-average longevity of its citizens.
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