We use a genome-wide association of 1 million parental lifespans of genotyped subjects and data on mortality risk factors to validate previously unreplicated findings near CDKN2B-AS1, ATXN2/BRAP, FURIN/FES, ZW10, PSORS1C3, and 13q21.31, and identify and replicate novel findings near ABO, ZC3HC1, and IGF2R. We also validate previous findings near 5q33.3/ EBF1 and FOXO3, whilst finding contradictory evidence at other loci. Gene set and cell-specific analyses show that expression in foetal brain cells and adult dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is enriched for lifespan variation, as are gene pathways involving lipid proteins and homeostasis, vesicle-mediated transport, and synaptic function. Individual genetic variants that increase dementia, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer – but not other cancers – explain the most variance. Resulting polygenic scores show a mean lifespan difference of around five years of life across the deciles.
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Ageing happens to us all, and as the cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier pointed out, "old age is not that bad when you consider the alternative". Yet, the growing ageing population of most developed countries presents challenges to healthcare systems and government finances. For many older people, long periods of ill health are part of the end of life, and so a better understanding of ageing could offer the opportunity to prolong healthy living into old age.
Ageing is complex and takes a long time to study – a lifetime in fact. This makes it difficult to discern its causes, among the countless possibilities based on an individual’s genes, behaviour or environment. While thousands of regions in an individual’s genetic makeup are known to influence their risk of different diseases, those that affect how long they will live have proved harder to disentangle. Timmers et al. sought to pinpoint such regions, and then use this information to predict, based on their DNA, whether someone had a better or worse chance of living longer than average.
The DNA of over 500,000 people was read to reveal the specific ‘genetic fingerprints’ of each participant. Then, after asking each of the participants how long both of their parents had lived, Timmers et al. pinpointed 12 DNA regions that affect lifespan. Five of these regions were new and had not been linked to lifespan before. Across the twelve as a whole several were known to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease, smoking-related cancer or heart disease. Looking at the entire genome, Timmers et al. could then predict a lifespan score for each individual, and when they sorted participants into ten groups based on these scores they found that top group lived five years longer than the bottom, on average.
Many factors beside genetics influence how long a person will live and our lifespan cannot be read from our DNA alone. Nevertheless, Timmers et al. had hoped to narrow down their search and discover specific genes that directly influence how quickly people age, beyond diseases. If such genes exist, their effects were too small to be detected in this study. The next step will be to expand the study to include more participants, which will hopefully pinpoint further genomic regions and help disentangle the biology of ageing and disease.