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Longevity Briefs: What Can ‘Ancestral Longevity’ Teach Us About Ageing Well?

Posted on 14 August 2023

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: Human life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past century, but healthspan (the time spent in good health) has not kept up. Many people suffer from chronic age-related diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular problems, that reduce their quality of life and increase their health care costs. However, some people can remain remarkably healthy even in very old age, and this ability runs in families. People are more likely to reach their ninth and tenth decades of life free of age-related diseases if their parents did too. While this knowledge doesn’t help people who lack ‘longevity genes’, understanding the mechanisms behind exceptional longevity may teach us how we can all extend our healthspans.

What did the researchers do: In this study, the researchers used data from two databases: the Leiden Longevity Study (LLS) in the Netherlands and the Scanian Economic-Demographic Database (SEDD) in Sweden. Both databases contain information on thousands of individuals who belong to long-lived families, as well as their partners who serve as controls. The researchers followed these individuals for up to 26 years and collected data on their mortality, disease incidence, medication use, and metabolomics (the measurement of small molecules in the blood that reflect the body’s metabolism).

The researchers then used two scores they developed in order to score participants. The Longevity Relatives Count (LRC) was simply the proportion of ancestors belonging to the top 10% longest-lived individuals of their birth cohort (for example, an LRC score of 0.5 means that 50% of the ancestors were long-lived). The MetaboHealth score was a method for predicting the probability of death within 5-10 years based on metabolomic measurements.

Key takeaway(s) from this research:

  • Individuals from long-lived families had a lower risk of dying, developing chronic diseases, and using long term medication when compared to their partners. 
  • Individuals from long-lived families were on average 21% less likely to develop an age-related disease in a given year when compared to their partners. Those who did develop a chronic disease remained 54% less likely to develop a second chronic disease when compared to their partners.
  • The above benefits were most pronounced for metabolic diseases such as diabetes.
  • With every 10% increase in LRC score, the yearly risk of developing an age-related disease decreased by 5% in the LLS, and 6% in the SEDD, maximising to 50% and 60% for an LRC of 1. In other words, the more long-lived ancestors you have, the longer you are likely to remain free of age-related chronic diseases and the longer you are likely to live.
Proportion of people free of metabolic diseases by age. Left: Comparing LLS participants (LLS IPs) to their partners Right: Comparing participants and partners with different LRC scores.
Increasing number of long-lived ancestors marks a decade of healthspan extension and healthier metabolomics profiles

So, longevity runs in families, which is nothing we didn’t already know. However, there are some interesting points to be made about these results. The first is that having more a greater number of long-lived ancestors was correlated with increasing longevity. This could suggest that there are a lot of different genetic factors at play, and the more of these you can ‘collect’, the healthier you will be in old age. The second is the apparent importance of metabolic factors, further study of which could point us in the right direction when it comes to delaying the development of age-related diseases.

With this being said, genetic studies generally suggest that genes do not play a large role in longevity for the majority of people, and that lifestyle is much more important. Consider also that socioeconomic status and healthy lifestyles also ‘run in families’, and this is not easy to control for. The fact that people in this study were compared to their partners (who are likely to share similar socioeconomic status and lifestyle) helps to lessen this problem.

Whatever the case may be, it is certainly possible to extend your health and lifespan through a healthy lifestyle, regardless of who your ancestors are. It may be that genetic factors are required to achieve ‘exceptional longevity’, but this possibility shouldn’t deter us from trying. 

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    Increasing number of long-lived ancestors marks a decade of healthspan extension and healthier metabolomics profiles

    Title image by Rod Long, Upslash

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