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Your Parents Hold the Key to Your Life Expectancy

September 14, 2016
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If you are wondering how long you’ll live, take a look at your parents. In a recent study conducted by the University of Exeter’s Medical School in England, scientists found a direct link between a parent’s lifespan and their offspring’s overall health. The study analyzed 186,151 adults between the ages of 55-73, and the age of their deceased parents. By looking at both the parent and participants’ health data, scientists discovered an inverse relationship. “The risk of death was 17 percent lower for each decade that at least one parent lived beyond the age of 70 years,” said Janice Atkins, lead author of the study. In a nutshell, your mortality will reflect your parents. However, this does not necessarily mean that individuals with parents who died earlier in life will too. Atkins suggests small lifestyle changes to combat statistics. “Although people with longer-lived parents are more likely to live longer themselves, there are lots of ways for those with shorter-lived parents to improve their health,” she said, “Current public health advice about being physically active, such as going for regular walks, eating well and not smoking are very relevant, and people can really take their health into their own hands.” With this new data, scientists are beginning to debate whether the results primarily stem from behavioral, environmental or genetic reasons. Are the similar lifespans due to hereditary genes or lifestyle choices within the family? Dr. Kenneth Langa, a University of Michigan professor of medicine, suggests it’s a combination of both. “The relationships between parental longevity and the health of kids are likely quite complicated and overlapping. I don’t think that it is all genetics, although it is likely that genetic relationships are certainly part of the story,” Langa said. Atkins agrees. She points out in the study that the relationship between a parent and an offspring’s lifespan is “complex” and involves multiple factors. “The association is partly due to the inheritance of genetic risk factors for blood pressure and cholesterol level, among others. Shared environment and lifestyle choices also play a larger role, including diet and smoking habits,” she added. Langa also points out that socioeconomic factors play a direct role in familial lifespans. In the study, the children of long-lived parents came from higher incomes and were provided higher education. This would infer that environment has a direct role in lifespan as well. As more data is collected, the conversation is beginning to shift toward all three factors rather than a selection of behavioral, environmental or genetics alone. Britt Heidinger, a North Dakota State University assistant professor of biological sciences, suggests researchers focus on underlying factors within the three. “Although studies have shown links between parental age and offspring longevity, more information is critically needed about the underlying mechanisms,” she said. In the meantime, experts suggest a healthier lifestyle to reduce morbidity risks. If you want to try something else, take advice from one of the oldest women in the world, Susannah Mushatt Jones. Before she passed at age 116, Jones recommended bacon, eggs, grits and a good night’s sleep for long life.
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