Healthy lifestyle may offset life-shortening genes, improve longevity

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Daily exercise is one of the healthy lifestyle habits that can help promote longevity. Studio Firma/Stocksy
  • Individuals with life-shortening genes can extend their life with healthy habits, according to new research.
  • Researchers say people with unhealthy lifestyles and genetic predispositions are twice as likely to die as those who have good habits and genes.
  • They say not smoking, physical activity, sleep, and diet are the lifestyle factors with the greatest impact on longevity.

People who adopt healthy lifestyle habits can significantly offset their genetic risk for premature death, according to a new study published in the journal BMJ Evidence Based Medicine.

In it, researchers say that quitting smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, getting regular physical activity and adequate sleep, and adopting a healthy diet can reduce the effects of life-shortening genes by more than 60%.

The researchers noted that genes can influence the risk of dying from diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, among many others. However, they said, individuals with a high genetic risk could extend their lifespan by nearly 5.5 years by adopting a health lifestyle at age 40.

“We used to think that genetics determined our lifespan, but this research paper, among others, now tells us a different story,” Kaytee Hadley, a functional dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition, health span, and longevity who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “Over 60 percent of our fate is determined by the factors that we, in large part, can control: nutrition, movement, smoking, and sleep. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (director of the Heart Disease Reversal Program at the Cleveland Clinic) said it best: ‘Genetics load the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger’.”

Sarah Louise Lilley, a stress-reduction practitioner who uses the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or “Tapping”) who was not involved in the study, agreed.

“We know now we can affect whether [genes are] up-regulated or down-regulated,” Lilley told Medical News today. “My hope is that these new studies continue to move the needle, growing people’s commitment to a healthy lifestyle, and shifting their perception from victimhood to empowerment.”

The study involved 353,742 adults who had been recruited to the UK Biobank between 2006 and 2010, and whose health was tracked until 2021.

Dr. Zilong Bian, a lead researcher who is affiliated with the Nanjing Medical University in China, and colleagues utilized a polygenic risk score (PRS) tool, which took into account multiple genetic factors, to determine participants’ overall genetic risk of a longer or shorter lifespan.

The study subjects were classified as having long (20% of participants), intermediate (60%), or short (20%) lifespan risks.

Concurrently, participants were categorized as having favorable (23% of participants), intermediate (56%), or unfavorable (21%) lifestyles.

During the 13-year study period, 24,239 of the participants died. The observational study concluded that individuals who were genetically predisposed to die early were 21% more likely to die during the study period, regardless of their lifestyle.

Conversely, those with an unhealthy lifestyle were 78% more likely to die prematurely than those with a healthy lifestyle, regardless of their genetics.

In addition, those who had both an unhealthy lifestyle and genetic predispositions were twice as likely to die as those who had good health habits and a favorable genetic profile.

The health habits that appeared to have the greatest impact on longevity were never smoking, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and a healthy diet, the researchers said.

“This study elucidates the pivotal role of a healthy lifestyle in mitigating the impact of genetic factors on lifespan reduction,” the study authors wrote. “Public health policies for improving healthy lifestyles would serve as potent complements to conventional healthcare and mitigate the influence of genetic factors on human lifespan.”

A 2023 study from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the journal The Lancet Healthy Longevity similarly concluded that adopting a healthy lifestyle, even in late life, was associated with lower mortality risk and longer life expectancy.

Those study authors wrote that their research highlighted “the importance of a healthy lifestyle in extending the lifespan, especially for individuals with high genetic risk.”

Researchers at San Diego State University who studied genes, lifestyle, and longevity among women in the United States ages 63 and older found that even if you aren’t likely to live long based on your genes, you can still extend your lifespan by engaging in positive lifestyle behaviors such as regular exercise and sitting less, according to Aladdin H. Shadyab, PhD, an assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego and lead author of the 2022 study.

“Conversely, even if your genes predispose you to a long life, remaining physically active is still important to achieve longevity,” added Shadyab in a press statement.

“As a healthcare practitioner, I hope this information is empowering to people everywhere,” said Hadley. “Your lifespan is not pre-destined and you have so much control. The key is to make sustainable changes that add up in the long term. Instead of just signing up for a gym every New Year to just fall off the wagon by March, for example, find a type of activity that you enjoy and fits into your schedule because you’re more likely to stick with it.”

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