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Healthy lifestyle could counteract effects of life-shortening genes

The study identified an optimal combination of four lifestyle factors -- no current smoking, regular physical activity, adequate duration and a healthy diet -- for prolonging human lifespan. Photo by Nathan Cowley/Pexels

1 of 2 | The study identified an optimal combination of four lifestyle factors — no current smoking, regular physical activity, adequate duration and a healthy diet — for prolonging human lifespan. Photo by Nathan Cowley/Pexels

NEW YORK, April 29 (UPI) — A healthy lifestyle could counteract the effects of life-shortening genes by more than 60%, a new analysis of several large long-term studies suggests.

The findings were published online Monday in BMJ Evidence Based Medicine.

“The study probed into the joint impacts of lifestyle and genetic factors on human lifespans,” said one author, Dr. Xifeng Wu, dean of the School of Public Health and vice president of the Second Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine in China.

An unfavorable lifestyle was associated with a 78% heightened risk of death, regardless of genetic determinants. But a favorable lifestyle could potentially mitigate the genetic risk of premature death by approximately 62%, said Wu, who also is director of the National Institute for Data Science in Health and Medicine of Zhejiang University.

“Adherence to a healthy lifestyle could substantially attenuate the lifespan reduction for individuals with genetic susceptibility to a shorter lifespan,” she said.

The greatest danger applied to participants with both a genetic predisposition to short lifespans and an unfavorable lifestyle. They had twice the risk of death compared to those with a genetic predisposition to long lifespans and a favorable lifestyle, the researchers noted.

However, they pointed out that individuals with a high genetic predisposition for shorter lifespans still face a 21% increased risk of death compared to those with low genetic risk, irrespective of their lifestyle choices.

The study identified an optimal combination of four lifestyle factors — no current smoking, regular physical activity, adequate sleep duration and a healthy diet — for prolonging human lifespan.

With a healthy lifestyle, individuals at high genetic risk of a shortened lifespan could lengthen their life expectancy by almost 5 1/2 years at age of 40, the researchers noted.

“Given that lifestyle behavioral habits are typically developed before middle age, implementing effective public health interventions is quite crucial for those at high genetic risk to extend their lifespan before the formation of a fixed lifestyle,” Wu said.

Based on the study’s findings, it’s best to “focus on building and sticking to healthy habits, no matter what your genes say,” she added, recommending that people “strive to incorporate these lifestyle factors into their daily routines to promote longevity and overall well-being.”

In addition, Wu suggested that policymakers aim to implement “strategies that encourage and support the adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviors at the population level as these efforts have the potential to mitigate the impact of genetic factors on human lifespan and improve public health outcomes.”

The researchers reviewed the data of 353,742 adults, recruited to the UK Biobank between 2006 and 2010, and whose health was tracked until 2021. During an average tracking period of almost 13 years, 24,239 participants died.

Because this is an observational study, the researchers couldn’t reach any definitive conclusions about cause. They also acknowledged various limitations to their findings.

For instance, the researchers assessed lifestyle at only one point in time, and lifestyle choices differ by age. Participants also were all of European ancestry, which may limit the generalizability of the findings.

“This is an important study that fits with other evidence of how focusing on lifestyle changes can improve health overall, especially cardiovascular health,” Dr. Christopher Kramer, a professor and chief of the cardiovascular division at University of Virginia Health in Charlottesville, told UPI via email. He was not involved in the new research.

“Mortality is not necessarily predestined by one’s genes. Certainly, genes have some influence on our lifespan, but lifestyle has significantly more influence. There is a lot we can do to improve our longevity through lifestyle changes,” Kramer said.

He added that people “should continue to focus on proper diet, weight loss, regular exercise, and avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol use.”

However, “it is quite notable that the four highlighted lifestyle factors did not include alcohol consumption, which one might have expected to be among the top factors,” said Mark Gerstein, a professor of biomedical informatics and data science at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

Gerstein nonetheless highlighted “the immense value of the UK Biobank, a resource assembled by the British government. This paper heavily relies on this primary data resource, which stands as a major testament to its significance.”

That resource is where researchers obtained data for a large group of more than 350,000 Europeans monitored for an average of 13 years to illustrate their point — that lifestyle factors can offset the risk of earlier death even if someone is born with a genetic susceptibility to diseases, said Dr. Deborah Kado, a professor of medicine st Stanford School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif.

“Individual lifestyle choices to maximize health can have a real impact,” said Kado, who also is director of the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System.

Behaviors “can affect how genes get expressed and whether diseases ultimately do or do not develop,” she said.