Is it possible to use genetics to help people live longer?

By Sanya Saxena


Did you know that an action of a single gene in your body could affect how long you live? Considering that there are so many factors that go into determining life span, including lifestyle factors and a long list of diseases, this may be quite hard to believe. However, in recent months, with the increase in research on prolonging human lifespan, scientists have seen some remarkable effects on animal lifespans when particular genes have been edited. Furthermore, research done on various species’ has provided scientists with tantalizing clues on the molecular pathways involved in aging.


Usually, when scientists study the effects of one’s genetics on lifespan they start with trying to identify which genes play a major role. One way this has been done is through the study of microscopic roundworms. One famous study that made headlines in 1993 by looking at a type of microscopic worm known as C. elegans. Cynthia Kenyon and her associates were able to demonstrate how members of this species with a specific single gene mutation were able to live twice as long as members that did not have this mutation. This finding significantly changed the way we would look at aging and genetics for years to come. First of all, this new finding challenged the prevailing belief that aging occurs as the body slowly deteriorates over time. Secondly, it led scientists to consider that a single gene itself could dramatically regulate how an organism lived. Before this paper, most scientists figured that aging, age-related illnesses, and death were consequences of multiple cellular and physiological processes, and so under the regulation of a wide and diverse set of genes. This new finding opened the door to various hypotheses and ideas about modifying life through genetic manipulation.


Recently, scientists have increased their interest in people living in their nineties and hundreds to determine what contributes to their long lives. Researchers found that individuals with longer lives than the average person have little in common with each other regarding things like education, income, or profession but they share similarities in their lifestyles. Many of them are nonsmokers, not obese, and cope well with external stimuli, like stress.


Because of their healthy habits, these older adults are less likely to develop age-related chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, than their same-age peers.


The siblings and children (collectively called first-degree relatives) of long-lived individuals are more likely to remain healthy and live longer than their peers. People with centenarian parents are less likely at age 70 to have the age-related diseases that are common among older adults. The brothers and sisters of centenarians typically have long lives, and any development of age-related diseases (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, or type 2 diabetes), appear later than they do in the general population. Longer life spans tend to run in families, which suggests that shared genetics, lifestyle, or both play an important role in determining longevity.

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