Methuselah's children -

Methuselah’s children


A note on that Boston University study of centenarian genetics: it may represent a rare case of a piece of research being slightly undersold in the popular press. The CBC (to take an example at random) reports:

In Thursday’s online issue of the journal Science, researchers say their model of 150 genetic variants helped to predict exceptional longevity—living to late 90s or longer—among people in the study compared with people in the general population of North America and Europe.

…The researchers identified a group of 150 genetic variants that they say can predict exceptional longevity with 77 per cent accuracy. …The team found 19 genetic “signatures” in the subjects’ DNA that were associated with diseases such as dementia and hypertension.

…To make their findings, the researchers compared disease-associated variants in 801 unrelated subjects enrolled in the New England Centenarian Study with 926 controls with the same Caucasian genetic backgrounds.

It would not be particularly impressive if the researchers built a model of “signatures” based on its 1,727-person sample and then found that the model explained 77% of the longevity within that same sample. After building the model they actually collected a whole new group, a “replication set”, of ethnically paired, mostly-Caucasian centenarians and non-centenarians. The model works as well on the “replication set” of oldies and controls as it does on the original “discovery set”; the individual components strongly associated with longevity in the original data are, overall, associated about as strongly amongst the new people. So the finding looks very strong, at least for Caucasians who have genetic backgrounds of the sort one might find in New England.

The authors of the study are excited about the possibility of their complex gene-hunting approach being adapted to questions about inheritable illnesses—and most of our biggest killers are, to a surprising degree, inherited. The same study could also just be done over for other ethnicities. At the same time, there’s a depressing deterministic quality to the outcome here. The genes that contribute most to extreme longevity don’t seem to be the ones that were previously known to be specifically connected to some disease.

It appears that the people who live to 100 and beyond don’t do so because they have strong genetic defences against stroke or Alzheimer’s or cancer, but because their overall aging clock is slower, and the diseases and disabilities to which they would otherwise be prone are all mutually delayed—in the wording of the study, “compressed”—into the tenth decade of life. More and more, one’s natural lifespan, as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) joked, appears to depend on a careful choice of ancestors.


Methuselah’s children

  1. I interpret this to mean that I can continue to live with complete disregard for suggested health norms, and I will die at whatever age my genes have predetermined anyway.

    Don't burst my bubble.

  2. "More and more, one's natural lifespan, as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) joked, appears to depend on a careful choice of ancestors."

    That's me f*cked than because the men in my family die in their 60s, it seems. No 90+ for me, I guess. However, the women in my family are extraordinarily long lived. So who knows.

    It is amazing how much human behaviour and health is down to genetics but so many liberals and progressives are still convinced that people are born tabla rasa and can be molded anyway they wish as long as The State gets hold of them early enough. The whole left agenda for the past 40 years in Canada has been a colossal waste of money and time but it will continue on indefinitely.

    "The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." CS Lewis

    • It's ridiculous to suggest that only the "liberals and progressives" disregard genetics. Conservatives and traditionalists are just as guilty in thinking that family and upbringing (in the social sense, not the biological sense) are the only things that matter. It's not the "liberals and progressives" who think that people can be tricked into being gay.

      • "It's ridiculous to suggest that only the "liberals and progressives" disregard genetics ……. It's not the "liberals and progressives" who think that people can be tricked into being gay."

        Where did I claim left wing types were the only ones to disregard genetics?

        Only progressives and liberals want The State to fix everyone's problems. Cons might have issues with genetics but they have not proposed to form a new ministry to handle homosexual issues or somesuch like left wing types would. Most cons that I have met are conservative because they don't believe people can be manipulated into desirable behaviour by The State.

        • "Only progressives and liberals want The State to fix everyone's problems".

          See, that's ridiculous too. Conservatives want the The State involved in fixing problems every bit as much as any other ideological group, they just want The State working on fixing different problems.

        • I think more precisely most conservatives would advocate that the private sector can do almost anything better and more effectively than the State and therefore look to be molded by either a large multi-national (IBM's Global Wellness Initiative, GE's Lifestyle coaching) or by reading a self-help book written by a flake. (Get Off Your But: How to End Self-Sabotage and Stand Up for Yourself, by Sean Stephenson. see Conservative Bookstore)

          It is interesting to note than when one considers lifespan in developed countries, there is a striking tendency. People in those countries in which the liberals and progressives have succeeded in molding the state to help mold people (through universal access to education, medical care etc) live longer. In itself, this does not make those liberals and progressives right… it is simply a fact in support of their argument.

          • I think Reagan and Thatcher, and to a lesser extent Mulroney, made markets function better and led to the wealth creation The State stole from people to pay for it's useless programs. And then big government types say government is all about kittens, lollipops and rainbows while capitalists are evil. North America and parts of Europe would be doing even better if we didn't have the barnacle that is The State holding us back.

            And there are plenty of conservatives – mainly former Reformers who seem to have disappeared recently, which is a shame – who are just as suspicious of big business as any lefty is. I know many conservatives who are suspicious of big business and government working together because it's a lot like fascism.

          • Ok thats what you think… (actually I agree on Reagan & Mulroney, less so on Thatcher.) , but it is kinda irrelevant to the topic at hand. There are a couple of relevant pieces of data: 1) that life expectancy correlates with socialized (democratic) states and 2) it does not appear that Reagan's politics did anything for US life expectancy. (Indeed, the rate of growth of American lifespan slowed slightly starting in 1980.

            My conclusion is that when humans congregate into effective cooperative groups they do better in all ways including health. I suspect their is some evidence in prehistory for this as well. More controversially I believe that the social construct we call a country is the most effective mechanism for the delivery of many universally necessary services including health and education. I won't argue that I can prove my thesis but at least it isn't contradicted by the available evidence.

        • "they don't believe people can be manipulated into desirable behaviour by The State."

          Unless of course they're stumping for he awesome, magical "deterrent" powers of their latest Get Tough On Crime enhancements to The State's force monopoly.

    • Somewhere in the middle there you seem to have tossed "human behaviour" in with "health", as though findings in one area were automatically applicable to the other. I'm not certain it actually works that way, though nice try.

      • "I'm not certain it actually works that way, though nice try."

        What exactly do you think I am trying to do? I threw in human behaviour because behaviour is also influenced by genetics. There is a whole field out there – evolutionary biology/psychology – that looks at genes and behaviour so I have no idea how you think I am trying to bamboozle you and others.

        • I thought you were trying to take a gratuitous swipe at "the whole left agenda for the past 40 years in Canada", but I don't know where I got that impression.

  3. "That's me f*cked than because the men in my family die in their 60s, it seems."

    Mine are usually in their 20s and 30s, so I've already beat the odds. Never having been shot at by a German or North Korean probably helped.

    • "Never having been shot at by a German or North Korean probably helped."

      Both my grandfathers were delighted that they made it to their 60's. Both felt they were living on borrowed time and that they should have died with their mates decades previous.

      • Likewise.

        My assumption has always been that I'd die an untimely death before any health/genetics could take effect. But what the hell, better to live 5 years like a lion than 30 years like a lamb.

        • Living well and happily is usually synonymous with lifestyles that allow for longer lifespans. Eat delicious food, sleep well, drink moderately, enjoy being outside, and you'll pretty much live longer than you would otherwise.

          • Ah yes, but what if you live happily like a barbarian, eating delicious but wildly unhealthy food, sleeping poorly, drinking excessively, etc?

          • Ted has the knowledge… you the wisdom.

        • "Better to live 5 years like a lion than 30 years like a lamb".

          Actually, I think I'd prefer the later. Lions generally live to about 10 – 12 in the wild, while sheep rarely make it past 20. I lion who only lives 5 years had a pretty bad life, whereas a 30 year old lamb would have broken all kinds of records.

          Of course, as "lamb" means "young sheep" there's no such thing as a 30 year old lamb, but maybe then I'm taking you too literally! ;-)

          (I can also think of one particular 30 year old lamb that I rather think is worth emulating, and there are nominally about 2.2 billion people who agree).


          • Touche, Monsieur.

            Best to be a lion for the Lamb, I suppose.

          • I should say, I do agree with the point you were actually making (as opposed to the literalness with which I approached it for fun). Whenever someone mentions how you can add 20 years to your life by not smoking, or drinking only in moderation or some such, my response has always been "Sure, but what a crappy 20 years they'll be!".

          • Also, D'Oh!

            I suppose I should have capitalized Lamb in my last parenthetical sentence above.

            Can I get a call from CtheG?

  4. To sooth the nearly departed above, one might look at

    See the first figure… things are getting better (perhaps not fast enough to help) but still getting better. At the same time, I don't find the study depressing at all. If the hope was to fight off each disease one by one… we would simply end up the mole in a big whack-a-mole game. We duck before cancer gets us at 72, and wham stroke at 73 etc.

    At this point, there are lots of the genes identified that have completely unknown functions. However, the finding from this report is like a Rosetta stone (the artifact not the software). It will allow teams of underpaid labrats to sort out what biogoo those genes are making, Pfizer, Bayer or J&J will make a cheapo synthetic version and we all get to see the Leafs win the cup. (although the shock from that might kill off quite a few)

    • I think I'd prefer to die before having to see the Leafs win the Cup.

      • Won't our metallurgists have trouble keeping the Cup from disintegrating, or are we presuming advances in that science as well?

        • I think we also have to assume advances in keeping the sun from burning out.

          • Not to mention a means to clearly communicate with the divine, to lift the Leafs' curse.

      • Anyone reading that sentence of yours has a good chance of his or her demise occurring before the Leafs win the Cup.

        • Spot on. I am 40 years old and am not at all confident that I will see Leafs win Cup in my lifetime, unless scientists start to manipulate our genes more effectively, of course.

    • You know, there were plenty of people who thought they'd never see the Blackhawks win the Cup (and need I even mention the Boston Red Sox…).

      At this point, I'm holding out just to see any Canadian team win the Cup. Most Canadian kids headed off to University in the Fall haven't even seen THAT in their lifetime!

  5. This study certainly proves what we already know. Some people are more genetically inclined to live longer than others. Even those genetically fortunate people can shorten their health by exercising too little, and eating and/or drinking too much, etc.

  6. More and more, one's natural lifespan, as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) joked, appears to depend on a careful choice of ancestors.

    Thankfully, as genetic research improves, we may well someday be able to "fix" the mistake of having chosen less superior ancestors!

  7. and most of our biggest killers are, to a surprising degree, inherited.

    In developed countries, that is only because of the massive strides in public health, sanitation and overall standard of living. For still far too many people (though thankfully fewer and fewer), most of their biggest killers are not genetically inherited.

    So our biggest life savers are democracy, freedom, capitalism and scientific progress.

    • … and the recognition of fundamental human rights.

      Also: scientific progress and capitalism have turned out to be double-edged swords. It's arguable that they've killed more than they've saved.

      • I took human rights and "peace" as being part of "standard of living", but it is worth pointing out explicitly that entirely too many people still die from war and other conflicts. And I'm not just talking about the big wars we always talk about (though too many innocent people are killed in those of course) but all of the many little wars and conflicts throughout the world that we never pay much attention to.

    • public health is well public
      sanitation requires a massive public infrastructure and government standards and intervention in the operation of restaurants etc
      overall standard of living is not as good a predictor as overall quality of life

      I think you should add socialized medicine, universal access to education somewhere after freedom but before capitalism. (that is as long as is does not kill you to do so)

    • Geez, you guys, chill! They were in no particular order, and your choices of words may well be buried in mine (like, say, "recognition of fundamental human rights" could be buried in my throwaway "freedom," etc.)

      Public health and sanitation get there when accountable governments make it happen. The drive to superb life expectancy in developed countries comes from babies and children no longer dying from diarrhea, meningitis, tetanus, whooping cough, etc. Vaccines came from science, and were implemented first by the public health vision of free capitalist democracies. Communist countries' allegedly wonderful infant mortality stats, it has been shown often enough, came from iffy definitions or out-and-out fraud.

      And Stu, "socialized medicine" likely has waaaay less to do with longevity than the public health, sanitation and economic prosperity contributors.

      To argue that scientific progress and capitalism have killed more than they have saved has to be one of your goofiest statements in a very long time, G.

      • And none of this is directly on point with Colby's talk of genetic influence on individual longevity. Except that the individual human in question has to survive all these other non-genetic risks before the genes can take over for the final golden age stretch.

  8. Can anybody give me a syte, where a can read this book in an original version please???