Children tend to take after their parents, so if your parents live into their eighties, chances are you will too. Now researchers have confirmed that octogenarians tend to have adult children with healthy hearts and a lower risk of cancer in middle age, setting them up for a longer life. The information could help predict someone’s risk of heart disease and other health markers.
The study comes from researchers at the University of Exeter, along with others at the University of Cambridge in the UK, the UConn Center on Aging at UConn Health in the USA, the Indian Institute of Public Health, and the French National Institute of Health. The researchers published their findings August 15th in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Funded by the Medical Research Council and using information from the UK Biobank, this large study set out to determine links between a parent’s longevity and their children’s health in middle age.
For their study, the researchers used health data of 186,000 middle-aged people in England, Scotland, and Wales, aged 55 to 73, whose parents were deceased. The data followed the participants for up to eight years and included information on their parents’ age at death. After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that obesity, low physical activity, smoking, and drinking alcohol affected the risk of disease at middle age, but the biggest predictor of heart disease and other health risk seemed to be the parents’ lifespan.
Overall, the researchers discovered that the participants with longer-lived parents were less likely to have heart disease, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. For each decade a parent lived beyond the age of 70, their child was 20% less likely to die of heart disease. Not only that, the children of longer-lived parents were 7% less likely to have cancer than their peers whose parents died younger. Overall, for each decade a parent lived past the age of 70, their child had a 17 percent increase in survival, making them more likely to reach the same ripe old age as their parents.
The researchers suggest this information could help to predict health risk in middle age. By looking at the parent’s age at death, a doctor could predict if their patient had a higher or lower risk of heart disease or certain cancers. If the patient’s parent did not make it to 70 or older, the doctor could adjust treatments and suggest lifestyle changes to help the patient improve their odds of a longer life.
Despite the link between longer-lived parents and better heart health and lower cancer risk, not all health factors were related to parental longevity. There did not seem to be a link between aged parents and asthma, hypothyroidism, depression, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or colorectal, breast, or prostate cancer.
Although this is the largest study of its kind, it is not the first to find a link between longer-lived parents and better health. A previous study, published earlier in 2016 in the journal Aging, also analyzed data from 75,000 participants in the UK Biobank. The University of Exeter Medical School researchers discovered that children of long-lived parents were more likely to have genetic variants which helped protect their health. These included genes linked to coronary artery disease, systolic blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, type 1 diabetes, body mass index, inflammatory bowel disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Doctors had long pondered how some people who smoked and had other poor lifestyle factors would die in middle age while others would live well into old age. Although researchers have already linked heart disease to factors like smoking and obesity, studies like these help to reinforce that there is a genetic link as well. Although these studies suggest that some people are just luckier with the genes they inherit, they do open up opportunities both to make lifestyle interventions in those with the unluckier genetic makeup, and to further research into helping prevent these diseases. By studying those who live longer, researchers may identify ways to help others avoid diseases related to aging, such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Slowing down the aging process could potentially help more people avoid these chronic health conditions. Studies have suggested that longer-lived people tended to have better DNA damage repair, but more research would need to confirm the mechanism and figure out how to apply it to others.
For those with parents who did not live to a ripe old age, there is still hope. Those patients can go for regular walks or become physically active in other ways, they can improve their diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and they can quit or avoid smoking. By targeting high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, high body mass index, and tobacco addiction, doctors can help their patients improve their heart health and their chance of living a long life themselves.