NEW YORK — Your parents may have a significant influence on how likely you are to stay healthy later in life.
Scientists have long suspected that the lifespan of parents holds clues to how long their own children will live, and now a new study reveals that parents’ longevity is linked to their offspring’s heart health, too.
So, long-lived parents may reduce the risk of morbidity and mortality in their kids, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology on Monday.
“This research is important, as it shows that knowing the age at which your parents died provides information on your own risk of death and disease,” said Janice Atkins, a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Medical School in England and lead author of the study.
“Although people with longer-lived parents are more likely to live longer themselves, there are lots of ways for those with shorter-lived parents to improve their health,” she added. “Current public health advice about being physically active, such as going for regular walks, eating well and not smoking are very relevant, and people can really take their health into their own hands.”
Parents, longevity linked
The study involved 186,151 non-adopted adults, between 55 and 73 years old, with deceased parents. The researchers analyzed health data on each participant using the UK Biobank, a health resource that collects long-term health information on volunteers.
The data were collected over eight years, and the researchers plotted the relationships between the participants’ health and their parents’ ages of death.
It turned out that there was an inverse relationship between the age of a parent’s death and the longevity of his or her offspring. When the parents reached about age 70 and older, their offspring’s risk of death dropped by about 17%, compared with their counterparts, and continued to fall the longer the parents lived.
“The risk of death was 17% lower for each decade that at least one parent lived beyond the age of 70 years,” Atkins said.
Additionally, participants with longer-lived parents had overall lower incidences of heart disease, heart failure, stroke, hypertension, anemia, high cholesterol and atrial fibrillation compared with their counterparts.
“However, it is important to note that these results are group-level effects, therefore general tendencies, which do not directly apply to individuals,” Atkins said. “If people are exposed to the big health risk factors, this will be more important to health than the age at which their parents died.”
Such big health risk factors could include smoking, for instance. Atkins added that these findings should also be applicable to people in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages American adults to document the health history of their family members, as family history is an important risk factor for common chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
“The relationship between parental age at death and survival and health in their offspring is complex, with many factors playing a role,” Atkins said.
“The association is partly due to the inheritance of genetic risk factors for blood pressure and cholesterol level, among others,” she said. “Shared environment and lifestyle choices also play a large role, including diet and smoking habits.”
Genetic, environmental or behavioral?
The findings add to growing evidence that there are probably genetic, environmental and behavioral factors “passed down” from parents to children that influence longevity, said Dr. Kenneth Langa, professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the new study.
“The relationships between parental longevity and the health of kids are likely quite complicated and overlapping. I don’t think that it is ‘all genetics,’ although it is likely that genetic relationships are certainly part of the story,” Langa said.
“The study showed that children of long-lived parents had higher levels of education, income [and] physical activity and lower prevalence of smoking and obesity, suggesting that in addition to genetic links between the generations, there are likely behavioral links resulting from the home, and more general environment, in which one is raised,” he added.
Britt Heidinger, assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at North Dakota State University, agreed that the findings raise interesting questions about how much of the link between parents’ and children’s longevity is due to shared genetic or environmental backgrounds.
“For example, some of this relationship might be due to inherited factors, but parents and offspring are also likely to share many aspects of their environments that could impact cardiovascular health, including attitudes about diet and exercise,” said Heidinger, who was not involved in the new study. “Although studies have shown links between parental age and offspring longevity, more information is critically needed about the underlying mechanisms.”