It may one day be possible to predict how long a person will live by looking at a few regions of a person’s genome. A research consortium has published a study in eLife that assessed genetic data from about 500,000 people, as well as information about the lifespan of the participants’ parents. In doing so, the team was able to develop a genetic scoring system; those in the top ten percent of the group would be expected to live around five more years than those in the lowest ten percent. The work also identified genetic regions that can provide insight into aging and health.
There are thousands of areas in the genome that have an impact on disease risk, but that has not necessarily shown which genes affect the length of a person’s life. This work has revealed genetic regions that are connected to lifespan. Some have not been pinpointed before this, like regions near the ABO, IGF2R, and ZC3HC1 genes. The study also validated previously identified areas of interest, close to ATXN2/BRAP, CDKN2B-AS1, FURIN/FES, PSORS1C3, and ZW10 genes.
The places that have the biggest influence on lifespan have already been linked to fatal diseases including lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Genes connected to cancers that have nothing to do with smoking did not turn up in this study.
“We found genes that affect the brain and the heart are responsible for most of the variation in lifespan,” said the first author of the report, Paul Timmers, a graduate candidate at the Usher Institute.
The scientists were not able to find genes that directly impacted how fast people age, however. Though the researchers had sought to do so, any genes like that did not have enough of an effect to be discovered in this effort.
This study would suggest that lifespan is influenced by too many factors, including environment and lifestyle, to predict exactly how long people will live based on a few genes. It may be possible to find more regions that have an impact by studying more groups of people, however.
“If we take 100 people at birth, or later, and use our lifespan score to divide them into ten groups, the top group will live five years longer than the bottom on average,” said Dr. Peter Joshi, an AXA Fellow at the University of Edinburgh's Usher Institute.
Learn more about the factors influencing a person's lifespan from this TEDx Talk, by Dr. Preston W. Estep. He is part of the senior management team of the Personal Genome Project (PGP) at Harvard Medical School.