Inherited Gifts May Not Include a Long Life

Hiking Perhaps we are what we eat, but suddenly we can no longer rely on our parents, that is our genetic makeup, to determine how long we live. At least not according to Swedish researchers who published recently in the Journal of Internal Medicine.

To be honest, “suddenly” is a bit of a misnomer; the study from which the data comes has been underway longer than many of us have been alive.

Timeline 1963, Gothenburg, Sweden. The study, a prospective of men turning 50 years old, that is, men born in 1913. The study goal, to identify variables important in reaching age 90 and to characterize the accuracy of these variables in predicting long life, in middle age. A secondary goal was learn how the predictive ability of a given variable might change over time, such as a strong predictor becoming less accurate with age.

All Gothenburg men born during 1913, on dates that were multiples of 3, were invited to participate. Out of 973 potential candidates, 855 were examined at age 50. (Women were not routinely used in clinical studies until well after 1963, but were included in later aspects of this study.)

Why Interesting
During my childhood, our family had already lost parents/grandparents to chronic conditions like stroke and heart disease. However, the affected relatives still lived fairly long lives, into their 70s and 80s. So I admit to thinking that I came from fairly good genetic lines, longevity-wise.  I tried to exercise, eat right and not step in front of buses, but also expected my genes would enable me to see age 70–80, no problem.

So, the Gothenburg report was a bit of a bubble burster.

Starting with their 50 birthdays, the 855 men were examined, then again at ages 53, 60, 67, 75 and 80 years of age. It was decided at the outset to not use data recorded at ages 75 and 80, as this was too close to 90.

Men were questioned at these exams about their smoking habits, coffee and alcohol consumption, mental stress, physical activity, the occurrence of dyspnea  (difficulty breathing) and the cost of housing, all via interviews conducted by a physician. Physical activity and mental stress was assessed retrospectively by a  questionaire.

One hundred-eleven of the study participants (13%) reached age 90. In terms of the variables recorded at age 50 that lead to such longevity, nonsmokers and those that drank less coffee, and spent more years in school had a better chance of survival. However, the father’s social status, alcohol-related problems and systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels were not significant contributors to survival to age 90. Survival probability did decline with increasing serum cholesterol levels.

The variables that related to  survival at age 60 were amount of physical activity during leisure time, absence of alcohol-related problems and lower systolic blood pressure, while blood glucose level, waist circumference, BMI, cardiovascular disease in fathers and mothers, and serum cholesterol were not significant contributors to longer lives.

Variables significantly related to survival at age 67 were: absence of dyspnea on walking uphill, better financial situation at age 61, shorter stature and lower systolic blood pressure. Again, body weight, waist circumference, treatment for type 2 diabetes, diastolic blood pressure and heart volume were not significant markers of survival.

The authors note that despite a rather large number of variables investigated, only a few were found to be ultimately  important to survival to age 90. Being a nonsmoker emerged as the most important variable, with other predictors being financial health, that is being able to afford comfortable housing, good general physical ability, and low serum cholesterol.

Contrary to popular belief, the length of the father’s life was not an indicator of longevity in the study participants.

This news is a bit depressing, if like me, you thought you had it made in terms of good longevity genes. Of course the study reinforces the ability to control one’s own destiny in terms of good health habits (less smoking, less drinking, less coffee), and more exercise.

Be well. Live long.
Wilhelmsen L, Svärdsudd K, Eriksson H, Rosengren A, Hansson PO, Welin C, Odén A, & Welin L (2010). Factors associated with reaching 90 years of age: a study of men born in 1913 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Journal of internal medicine PMID: 21175902

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Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".


  1. It’s quite possible though that if you did this study with kids born in 2003 – or rather if some scientist in 2100 did that – the contribution of father’s lifespan would be higher.

    In general life has become less likely to randomly kill you in recent years. The fathers of people born in 1913 were subject to all kinds of infectious diseases, wars and so forth which most of us today are lucky enough to avoid.

    Someone with “the genes to live to 100” who gets cholera and dies at age 30, gets chalked up as a death at 30. If their son who gets the same genes lives to 100 because cholera’s been eradicated that’s a poor correlation but still genes are there.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Neuroskeptic. You make some interesting points, such as ”life has become less likely to randomly kill you”. I agree we are better protected from measles, influenza and other more serious infectious diseases. But then we have plastic laced with BPA, cell phone radiation and those darn buses to be concerned about.
    Also agree that were the study done now or in the future, results might be different. Not sure I have another 40-50 years in me, but I’d sign up. Let’s get more women involved this time though.

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