How your parent’s lifespan affects your health

A tale of generations. Shutterstock

The longer your parents live, the more likely you are to live longer and have a healthy heart. These are the results of our latest study of nearly 200,000 volunteers.

The role of genetics in determining the age at which we die is increasingly known, but the relationship between parental age at death and survival and health in their offspring is complex, with many factors playing a part. Shared environment and lifestyle choices also play a large role, including diet and smoking habits, for example. But, even accounting for these factors, parents lifespan is still predictive in their offspring – something we have also shown in previous research. However it was unclear how the health advantages of having longer-lived parents was transferred to children in middle age.

In the new study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, we used information on people in the UK Biobank study. The participants, aged 55 to 73, were followed for eight years using data from hospital records. We found that for each parent that lived beyond their seventies, the participants had 20% less chance of dying from heart disease. To put this another way, in a group of 1,000 people whose fathers died at 70 and who were followed for ten years, around 50 on average would die from heart disease. But when compared to a group whose fathers died at 80, on average only 40 would die from heart disease over the same ten-year period. Similar trends were seen when it came to the age of mothers.

Interestingly, family history of early heart attacks is already used by physicians to identify patients at increased risk of disease.

Family history? Shutterstock

All is not lost

The biggest genetic effects on lifespan in our studies affected the participant’s blood pressure, their cholesterol levels, their body mass index and their likelihood to be addicted to tobacco. These are all factors that affect risk of heart disease, so is consistent with the lower rates of heart disease that we saw in the offspring. We did find some clues in our analysis of novel genetic variants that there might also be other pathways to longer life, for example through better repair of damage to DNA, but much more work is needed on these.

It is really important to note that our findings were group-level effects. These effects do not necessarily apply to individuals, as so many factors affect one’s health. So the results are really positive – although people with longer-lived parents are more likely to live longer themselves, but they do not mean people with shorter-lived parents should lose hope. There are lots of ways for those with shorter-lived parents to improve their health.

Current public health advice about being physically active (for example going for regular walks), eating well and not smoking are very relevant – and people can really take their health into their own hands. People can overcome their increased risk by choosing the healthy options in terms of not smoking, keeping active, avoiding obesity and so on and getting their blood pressures and cholesterol levels tested. Of course, they should discuss their family history with their physicians, as there are some good treatments for some of the causes of premature deaths.

Conversely, people with long-lived parents cannot assume they will therefore live long lives – if you are exposed to the big health risk factors, this will be more important to your health than the age at which your parents died.

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