Good genetics trump healthy lifestyle in longevity stakes

Posted on: 03 August 2011 by Alexander Hay

Bad news if your DNA doesn't like you as healthy lifestyles fail to increase longevity

Easy on the lettuce - but are some just born to live long?

Once again, we have a health story that focuses on the lurid instead of the small print:

Smoking, drinking and eating fast food will not stop you living to a ripe old age – if you have the right genes.

A study of hundreds of centenarians revealed they were just as likely to have vices as other people – and in some cases they indulged in them more.

Some of them had smoked for 85 years, others got through more than two packets of cigarettes a day. They also exercised less than their shorter-lived counterparts but were less likely to become obese...

Naturally, this rather upsets those who like telling other people off, so, like Calvin's potential elect, we are warned nonetheless to stay on the straight 'n narrow:

...Researcher Nir Barzilai, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said: ‘This study suggests centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.’

But most of us will not be so lucky. He added: ‘Although this study demonstrates centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, these lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity...’

The implications, however, are that luck is more a help than healthy living in staying alive. Apart from the depressing implication that we are not in charge of our fates as much as we're lead to believe, it also calls into question a central pillar of public health policy  - that we need to be saved from ourselves. 

If further research suggests that time spent on the exercise bike may as well be spent on eating cream cakes, then where does that leave us and our relationship with the state, the medical profession and our own bodies? Paternalism is bad for you, but so is fatalism.

What the story doesn't address, however, is the importance of environment and social background. Were these centenarians rich or poor? What was their ethnicity? What did they do for a living? What about education? How many children did they have? And so on. 

What has certainly been demonstrated is that our genes can be switched on and off, so to speak, by external stimuli. This means that those with longevity as inherited traits may or may not benefit from them, while those inclined to dying young might still dodge the genetic bullet. The only question is how all these complicated interactions and environmental effects shape us and to what degree. 

As is often the case, this research is simply a tiny glimpse at a much bigger picture.

[SOURCE: Daily Mail]

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Alexander Hay

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