Long Life and Longevity is Determined by Genes rather than Lifestyle or Environment

by Dr Sam Girgis on August 3, 2011

The Fountain of Youth is famous throughout the world and is believed to be a spring that reverses the effect of time and restores the youth to those that drink of its waters.  The legend of the Fountain of Youth occurs in the writings of Herodotus, Prestor John, and among the Native Americans prior to the arrival of the European explorers.  The Spanish new world explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, the first Governor of Puerto Rico, is renowned for his search of the Fountain of Youth and is reported to have found it in the land that is today known as Florida.  Whether the Fountain of Youth truly exists is unclear, but it does bring us to the idea that certain things when drank, eaten, or used during our lives can influence our longevity and lifespan.  Some have argued that it is not our environment, but rather our genetics that determines our health and lifespan.  This is known as the “nature” versus “nurture” debate, and some have argued that it is a combination of both that determines our longevity.  Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of the Yeshiva University lead by Dr. Nir Barzilai, have found that long life and longevity is determined by genetics rather than lifestyle or environment.  In other words, they provide evidence that suggests that it is “nature” rather than “nurture” that determines our lifespan.  Their research was published online in today’s Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.  For their study, the researchers used a retrospective cohort study of 477 Ashkenazi Jewish individuals with exceptional longevity that are at least 95 years old and living independently.  As a control group for comparison, the researchers used 3,164 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES I).  The researchers interviewed the study participants using a survey to collect information regarding lifestyle and environmental factors that may have influenced their longevity.  The researchers found that study participants that had exceptional longevity had similar mean body mass index, daily alcohol consumption, physical activity habits, smoking habits, and dieting characteristics as the control NHANES I participants.  When the study participants were asked what contributed to their longevity, most did not credit lifestyle factors but instead stated that it was a family history of long life.  The researchers argue that the study participants with exceptional longevity had “longevity genes” rather than healthier lifestyles that allowed them to live a longer life.  The authors wrote, “this study suggests that people with exceptional longevity were not healthier earlier in life in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet than the general U.S. population. These results support the notion that those with exceptional longevity may interact with environmental and lifestyle factors differently than others… This study suggests that people with exceptional longevity reach older ages despite lifestyle choices similar to those of the general population, supporting the notion that genetic factors related to exceptional longevity may also protect against the detrimental effects of poor lifestyle choices. It is also possible that epigenetic factors may contribute to exceptional longevity”.  The researchers emphasized that the general population should still follow a healthy lifestyle which includes diet, exercise, smoking cessation, and moderate alcohol consumption, especially if “longevity genes” are not present in our families.

See the Video interview with Dr. Nir Barzilai regarding the study findings below:


Swapnil N. Rajpathak et al. “Lifestyle Factors of People with Exceptional LongevityJournal of the American Geriatrics Society article first published online: 3 August 2011 doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2011.03498.x

Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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