Longevity: Genetics Vs Lifestyle
We’ve all heard the argument about achieving longevity framed as “genetics vs lifestyle.” How is it that some people can ignore all the health experts and live to 100 or older? Does lifestyle even matter?
The truth is that the only reason we hear about those who thumb their noses at health guidelines with absolutely no consequences is that there are so few of them!
Today I’ll review what some of the research has to say about them – and one longevity expert’s recommendation for the rest of us.
A Cholesterol Conundrum: Man Eats 25 Eggs Daily at 88
As part of last week’s deep dive into the egg and cholesterol debate, I mentioned the story of the 88-year-old who had normal cholesterol despite eating 25 eggs a day.
He wasn’t pleased about his situation, confiding to researchers that “Eating these eggs ruins my life, but I can’t help it.”Almost anyone else who shared his addiction and the cholesterol that accompanied it wouldn’t make it to 88. Why did he?
On the “longevity: genetics vs lifestyle” spectrum, his case falls at the genetics side’s far end. The genetic variant he was born with meant his body absorbed only about 18 percent of the cholesterol he consumed.
But there’s more. Most of what he didn’t absorb, his body converted into harmless bile acids:
“His almost complete freedom from clinically important atherosclerosis and its complications may be explained in part by a great reduction in the efficiency of cholesterol absorption from the intestine and by a marked increase in the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids.”
However, he wasn’t the only one to have inherited natural cholesterol control!
Identifying the Cholesterol-Combating Gene
This study published in the New England Journal of Medicine measured the incidence of heart disease among participants with “DNA-sequence variations that reduce[d] plasma levels of LDL cholesterol.”
Of 3,363 black participants, 85 (2.6 percent) carried the gene mutation that lowered their LDL “bad” cholesterol by 28 percent and their risk of heart disease by an astounding 88 percent!
Of the 9,223 white participants, 301 (3.2 percent) carried the same gene mutation. They experienced a 15-percent LDL reduction and a corresponding 47-percent reduction in heart-disease risk.
These numbers suggest that only 2 to 3 of every 100 people can ignore their cholesterol consumption. For the other 97 or 98, it remains an issue!
Last week, I also mentioned Emma Morano. During her 117-year lifetime, Emma ate more than 100 thousand eggs. While never tested for the genetic mutation, she seems likely to have had it.
Emma’s story isn’t much different from those of other super-centenarians who ignored healthy lifestyle guidelines yet lived past 110:
- Jeanne Louise Calment, who lived to 122 (?), famously smoked cigarettes every day from age 21 to 117. She also ate 2 pounds of chocolate every week and enjoyed port wine and olive oil with abandon.
- South Africa’s Fredie Blom, a lifetime smoker, lived to 114 and told reporters:
“Every day I still smoke two to three ‘pills,’” – local slang for tobacco tightly rolled into a cigarette-length piece of newspaper. “I use my own tobacco because I don’t smoke cigarettes.”
Fredie ate meat at every meal. (Perhaps the big servings of veggies he also ate had something to do with his long life?)
Researching the Longevity: Genetics vs Lifestyle Question
Having a rare genetic profile allows people to ignore health guidelines and live unusually long lives. But that only applies to a small percentage of the general population.
Such people are the exception, not the rule. For most of us, living a long, healthy live will mean being smart about our lifestyle choices.
Israeli researchers investigated the longevity: genetics vs lifestyle question in a study of 477 individuals aged from 95 to 100 and still living independently.
Most of the participants seemed to share the general population’s lifestyle. The researchers concluded they must have exceptional genes:
“Thus, although for most people, interaction with the environment is important, and a healthier lifestyle may enhance lifespan, the presence of longevity genes in people with exceptional longevity counter the presence of disease-associated genes.”
If your parents, grandparents, or other relatives lived past 100, perhaps they passed their disease-immune longevity genes on to you!
For the rest of us…
One Longevity Expert Gives the Nod to Lifestyle
Most of us would be wise to pay attention to our diet, exercise, and overall well-being. That’s what I’ve learned from the research of National Geographic longevity expert Dan Buettner.
In 2019, I heard Dan speak at a plant-based conference. In reiterating his findings, he shared these “secrets” on how to achieve longevity:
- Eat mostly whole-food, plant-based.
- Move naturally with walking and gardening.
- Stay connected to loved ones.
Here you have it – the answer to the issue of longevity: genetics vs lifestyle. Nature has blessed a tiny fraction of humanity with longevity genes.
For the rest of us, living a long, healthy life depends on making healthy lifestyle choices!