Elders For the Common Good
Crabby's Quotes on Aging

Longevity – Don’t Blame Your Parents


“’How tall your parents are compared to the average height explains 80 to 90 percent of how tall you are compared to the average person,’ Dr. Vaupel said. But ‘only 3 percent of how long you live compared to the average person can be explained by how long your parents lived.’”
- The New York Times, 31 August 2006

Many years ago, a friend was approaching his 40th birthday. He was convinced that because his father had died of a heart attack at age 42, his days too were numbered. I can report that, now in his late sixties, the man is still alive and healthy, but over the intervening years, I have met an astonishing number of men (much more so than women) who expect to die at about the age their father’s did.

According to several ongoing studies into longevity, reported in a remarkably thorough piece written by Gina Kolata in a recent issue of http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/31/health/31age.html?ex=1314676800&en=7a042fdf09063881&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss, this is bunk. Dr. Kaare Christensen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark has studied 10,251 pairs of identical, same-sex twins whose genes are identical, and fraternal twins who are no different genetically from ordinary siblings.

Even with identical twins, says Dr. Christensen, “the vast majority die years apart.”

“…there was almost no genetic influence on age of death before 60, suggesting that early death has a large random component – an auto accident, a fall. In fact, the studies of twins found almost no genetic influence on age of death even at older ages, except among people who live to be very old, the late 80s, the 90s or even 100.”

Dr. Caleb Finch, a researcher on aging at the University of South California, who reports that genetically identical animals living in the same environments die at different times, further defines randomness:

“There are two phases of randomness,” he says. “There’s the randomness of life experience. The unlucky ones, who get an infection, get hit on the head or get mutations that turn a cell into cancer. And there are random events in development…random differences in development early in life can set the stage for deterioration decades later.”

Even the belief that certain diseases are strongly inheritable is being refuted.

“…only a few cancers – breast, prostrate and colorectal – had a noticeable genetic component. And that was not much…”

“…Alzheimer’s is so common in the elderly that it occurs in 35 percent of people age 80 and older. If genes determine who gets Alzheimer’s at older ages, Dr. Pederson says, ‘those genes must be very common, have small effects and probably interact with the environment.’”

“Heart disease appears to be indiscriminate, striking almost everyone eventually…”

“…the general picture is consistent in study after study,” writes Ms. Kolata. “A strong family history of even a genetically linked disease does not guarantee a person will get it, and having no family history does not mean a person is protected.”

Matt McGue, a professor of psychology who studies life spans as contrasted with personalities says,

“I’ve been in this business a long while, and life span is probably one of the most weakly heritable traits I’ve ever studied.”

That certainly appears to knock the old joke, "I come from a line of long livers," into a cocked hat. It has been conventional wisdom all my life that if our parents and grandparents lived to a ripe old age, we too, especially with the improved nutrition and healthcare we have benefited from in the 20th century, can expect to live unto the outer reaches of human longevity.

Maybe, maybe not. But it appears to have little to do with our parents' longevity. This story is popular journalism at its best, reporting practical knowledge resulting from recent and ongoing genetic studies in language laymen can understand. It's worth reading.


Thanks for the link. I found the article especially interesting in the area of Alzheimer's as my father is suffering from this terrible disease. In the midst of the worry about him, I've worried about my chances for developing the disease. This eases my mind somewhat.

I can speak from experience. My father is an identical twin. He had high blood pressure and died of a brain aneurysm at age 56 (over 30 years ago). His twin is alive, well and kicking at almost 90!

I am so thrilled to hear this. My parents died close to the age that I am now. When I was in my forties, I decided to educate myself and to live a lifestyle that would couteract those health problems. I am much more active and much healthier than they were. So I guess I am succeeding.

Kinda disagree on the genetics, there are most certainly genetic componenets to diseases. Being aware of relative's health history and knowing what to check for in your own health is pretty important.

I think a lot of disease is lifestyle related. India has low occurence of Alzheimers, thanks to curry and turmeric in the diet, which helps clear brain plaques. Asian diets lead to lower incidence of heart disease since there's more fish in the diet.

My hairdresser of 25 years father died at age 52 from a heart condition. Mike thought he would do the same - and he worried about it so much that he drank himself into a heart/liver condition like his dad - and died at age 52. A self-fulfilling prophecy. It was so sad to watch that happen.

Thanks for the research and link Ronni! My father died at age 62 from heart failure followed by a heart attack. I just turned 61 yesterday, but unlike Pop, I engage in a full exercise regimen of jogging, tennis & weight training and take cholesterol lowering statins and aspirin daily.

However, health care is the U.S. is actually subpar, as is longevity compared to other 'first world' countries---Here are some excerpts about this problem...

"...Want a health tip? Move to Canada. An impressive array of data shows that Canadians live longer, healthier lives than we do. What's more, they pay roughly half as much per capita as we do ($2,163 versus $4,887 in 2001) for the privilege..."

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2004.

and "...Longevity in this country is nothing to cheer about..."

"...A World Health Organization study released last year put Canadian life expectancy at birth at 79.8 years, Japan's at 81.9 and America’s at 77.3!"

"Dr. Stephen Bezruchka of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington in Seattle was quoted in the above LA Times story: 'There isn't a single measure in which the U.S. excels in the health arena. We spend half of the world's healthcare bill and we are less healthy than all the other rich countries.'"

"In Canada, ten percent of the gross domestic product goes to health-care spending; in this country, the percentage is fourteen. Canadians can select their own doctors and they never see a bill. More significant for longevity purposes than medical spending is the lifestyle issue. In Canada, fifteen percent of the people are fat; in the US, a third are obese and 64 percent are overweight."

"In 1998, the US ranked 13th and 14th place, respectively, for women and men. In 1950, we were 5th and 6th, respectively. We spend the most on medical care, yet we fare poorly in terms of longevity. To recall a phrase made famous by Aaron Wildavsky, we’re “doing better and feeling worse.”

Source :http://www.seekwellness.com/

Even countries like Panama have comparable and much cheaper healthcare- (Source NY Times-in an article discussing retirees in Panama in May 2006).

Am glad to see more attention paid to the fact one or the other of genetics and/or environmental factors are not individually the end all in determining our health and life expectancy as we age, as so much of popular media writing would lead all to believe.

Kenju certainly is correct that self-filling prophecies based on some of this over-simplified emphasis on the effects of certain inherited genetics for selected health problems can be destructive for some individuals.

At best, in many instances, what is inheritied is increased risk for selected medical problems, which is not to say an individual will definitely acquire the problem as so many other factors come into play.

I am aware in my own family of the profound consequences on attitude, behavior, effect on others, on an individual who believed he would die at an early age from heart problems, just like his father. His emotional state was seriously effected with much more introversion, thus life style consequences. When health problems did develop in later years he was much more poorly equipped to cope. He did not resort to self-destructive self-medication, but his actions were unduly influenced for a number of years by this all too commonly held belief fostered by the manner of health news reporting.

Hi Ronni. My name is Ronni too. I read your tax free HSA article. I have had mine since the very first day, 1/1/97, back when they were called tax free MSAs. Basically, I harnessed the power of freedom. Have you read those press releases from United Health Care and Golden Rule saying that they were the first to enroll MSA clients over 10 years ago? Isn't that odd. 1/1/97 is my effective date and mine isn't 10 years old yet. I guess most of the health reporters don't care or don't know. Mine is not with Golden Rule but instead its with the real first company to market tax free MSAs. I think a lot of it has to do with Dr. John Goodman (NCPA) saying that MSAs are from S. Africa. That's pretty funny too.

If you see Dr. Goodman ask him if he has ever explained how 7-Eleven has the oldest tax free MSA/HSAs in America. The head 7-Eleven guy said, "Jay Lenno has never confused the 7-Eleven employees as being amongst the rich."

Healthcare is kinda complex. So I'm glad I have found your blog because I might have some wrong ideas. I'm sure you will bring clarity to the complexities.

I'm sorry Ronni, I forgot my E on my name.

What about Medicare's Part B premium explosion that's coming. Some Seniors will pay 80% of the total Part B premium by 2009. Its only 25% for seniors now. Some couples will be paying $750 a month in 2009 to the Government for Part B.

We need a Plan B for Part B.

I was really happy to read this article. Lots of people in my family don't live long enough to qualify for the senior discount. I'm running a long-term experiment on myself to see if it was genetics or their atrocious habits ;)

How disappointing to learn that the old axiom of "how to live a long life: have good ancestors" is no longer thought to be true. Having had 3 great grandmothers who lived to be nearly ninety (That would probably be the equivalent of living to be nearly 100 now.) made me thnk I had inherited good genes and would make it to 120. Sigh!

Empowering news.

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