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Lifestyle affects life expectancy more than genetics does, study finds

Feb. 7, 2011
Courtesy of the University of Gothenburg
and World Science staff

How you live, more than how long your par­ents lived, de­ter­mines how old you’ll get, new re­search sug­gests.

Scientists found that the high­est chances of liv­ing to 90 were en­joyed by non­smok­ers who con­sumed mod­er­ate amounts of cof­fee and had a good so­ci­o­ec­on­om­ic sta­tus at the age of 50—mea­sured in terms of hous­ing cost­s—as well as good phys­i­cal work­ing ca­pacity at the age of 54 and low cho­les­ter­ol at 50.

“The study clearly shows that we can in­flu­ence sev­er­al of the fac­tors that de­cide how old we get... lifestyle has the big­gest im­pact,” said Lars Wil­helm­sen of the Uni­vers­ity of Goth­en­burg, Swe­den, one of the re­search­ers. Cho­les­ter­ol lev­els are in­flu­enced by di­et, for ex­am­ple. 

“This is pos­i­tive not only for the in­di­vid­ual, but al­so for so­ci­e­ty as it does­n't en­tail any ma­jor drug costs,” he added. “Many of these fac­tors have pre­vi­ously been iden­ti­fied as play­ing a role in car­di­o­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, but here we are show­ing for the first time that they are im­por­tant for sur­viv­al in gen­er­al.”

The study, published in the Jour­nal of In­ter­nal Med­i­cine, drew on da­ta from a sur­vey be­gun in 1963 of men born in half a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er. A third of all male 50-year-olds in Goth­en­burg were called for a check-up that fo­cused on car­di­o­vas­cu­lar health. Every ten years since, a new group of 50-year-olds has been called in and those who were al­ready tak­ing part in the study have re­ceived an­oth­er check-up. This has let re­search­ers fol­low the de­vel­op­ment of ill­nesses in a spe­cif­ic age group, and to com­pare the health of 50-year-olds in 2003 with that of 50-year-olds in 1963, for ex­am­ple. Wom­en have been in­clud­ed in the study since 2003.

The men born in 1913 were ex­am­ined when they were 50, 54, 60, 67, 75 and 80. Of the 855 men who took part in the study from the start, 13 per­cent were still alive at 90.

An ear­li­er find­ing based on the same sur­vey came in 2008 when re­search­ers disco­vered that a drop in the num­ber of smok­ers, com­bined with low­er cho­les­ter­ol lev­els and low­er blood pres­sure, be­tween 1963 and 2003 could of­fer an ex­plana­t­ion for the marked down­turn in the num­ber of heart at­tacks dur­ing this 40-year pe­ri­od.


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How you live, more than how long your parents lived, determines how old you will get, new research suggests. It's often assumed that people with parents who lived to be very old are more likely to live to a grand old age themselves. But in reality “lifestyle has the biggest impact,“ said Lars Wilhelmsen of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, one of the authors of the study, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine. The researchers found that the highest chances of living to 90 were enjoyed by nonsmokers who consumed moderate amounts of coffee and had a good socioeconomic status at the age of 50—measured in terms of housing costs—as well as good physical working capacity at the age of 54 and low cholesterol at 50. “The study clearly shows that we can influence several of the factors that decide how old we get,“ said Wilhelmsen. Cholesterol levels are influenced by dietary factors, for example. “This is positive not only for the individual, but also for society as it doesn't entail any major drug costs,“ he added. “Many of these factors have previously been identified as playing a role in cardiovascular disease, but here we are showing for the first time that they are important for survival in general.“ The study drew data from a survey begun in 1963, of men born in half a century earlier. A third of all male 50-year-olds in Gothenburg were called for a check-up that focused on cardiovascular health. Every ten years since, a new group of 50-year-olds has been called in and those who were already taking part in the study have received another check-up. This has let researchers follow the development of illnesses in a specific age group, and to compare the health of 50-year-olds in 2003 with that of 50-year-olds in 1963, for example. Women have been included in the study since 2003. Several variables have been studied over the years, including BMI, smoking habits, cholesterol, exercise habits and blood pressure. The men born in 1913 were examined when they were 50, 54, 60, 67, 75 and 80. Of the 855 men who took part in the study from the start, 13% were still alive at 90. An earlier finding based on the same survey came in 2008 when researchers discovered that a drop in the number of smokers, combined with lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, between 1963 and 2003 could offer an explanation for the marked downturn in the number of heart attacks during this 40-year period.