Daughters have long looked to their mothers when wondering when they’ll get gray hair and wrinkles.
But the way mothers age actually reveals deeper clues about what their daughters can expect later in life, including their likelihood of living to age 90 with no major health problems, according to a new study.
In a report recently published in the journal Age and Ageing, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine analyzed roughly 20 years of data from 22,735 postmenopausal women from the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term national health study. They found that women have a 25-percent increased likelihood of living past their ninth decade without serious disabilities or chronic illnesses (such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes) if their mothers did.
If both mom and dad maintain their health to age 90, daughters are 38 percent more likely to do the same. However, the researchers did not find an increased chance of longevity in women when only the father lived to 90.
The study did not look at the effect on the sons.
Why good genes can mean a long life
While the study did not look at the reasons why certain people live longer than others, its findings suggest that good genes contribute to longevity.
“I wasn’t sure how strong the correlation was between maternal longevity and patients’ own longevity [before I read this study], but I would have guessed that they were related because the main diseases that affect us are diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers, all of which are hereditary,” said Dr. Orli Etingin, medical director of the Iris Cantor Women’s Health Center at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine.
“The converse also holds true, that if you didn’t inherent certain genes, you’re more likely to live a long time, just like your parents did,” she added.
The environment in which you grow up and your lifestyle choices also play a role in your life span. For example, if you were raised by parents who cooked nutritious meals and exercised regularly, you got that healthy advantage in childhood and are more likely to continue those good habits into adulthood, said Etingin.
The fact that the study did not find a link solely between a dad’s life span and his daughter’s hints that genes may be a stronger influence on longevity than habits instilled in children by parents.
“The environment is determined by both parents,” said Etingin. “Is one parent a more powerful role model than another? I don’t think you can say that for sure.”
Why you need to know about epigenetics
Some experts say the nature versus nurture argument is an oversimplification when it comes to longevity, though.
“In the old days, we thought genetics was genetics and environment was environment. Now we know they intersect in a category of epigenetics,” said Dr. Sandra Kaufmann, chief of pediatric anesthesia at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, and author of “The Kaufmann Protocol: How We Age and How to Stop It.”
Your epigenetic programming (or how your body decides which genes function and when) adds further dimension to your health profile. Your environment and lifestyle, as well as your time in the womb, can all modify your epigenetic makeup, Kaufmann said.
“What the mother did before she was pregnant and while she was pregnant determines epigenetic coding on a fetus. It’s yet another layer of maternal effect,” she said.
Research shows that certain activities and lifestyle choices can make an impact on which DNA “switches” get turned on and off. One study showed that mindfulness meditation practices can have a positive impact on the genes that relate to inflammation and pain. Other research shows that gene expression can be altered by insufficient sleep.
While we can’t control which genes we’re born with, we can make healthy choices (like eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, avoiding smoking, and keeping up with doctor’s appointments) throughout our lives that can improve our chances of living independently into our 90s, regardless of mom’s life span, said Etingin.
“The take-home message is that you can’t do anything with a hand of cards you got dealt. Your genes are your genes, maybe one day we can change that, but right now we can’t,” she said. “Spend a lot of time on how you play that hand — that’s the lifestyle you choose to live.”