The Genetics of Exceptional Human Longevity


Address correspondence to Thomas Perls MD, MPH, Geriatrics Section, Boston Medical Center, 88 East Newton Street, F4, Boston, MA 02118.


There is a substantial distinction to be made between the genetics of aging and the genetics of exceptional longevity. Twin studies suggest that the average set of genetic variations facilitates the average human's ability to live well into their octogenarian years. Other studies indicate that taking full advantage of this average set results in spending the majority of those years in good health. However, many people counteract such genetic endowment with poor health habits, resulting in a substantially lower average life expectancy and relatively more time spent in poor health. To live beyond the octogenarian years, life-span experiments in lower organisms and mammals and population and molecular genetic studies of centenarian sibships suggest that genetic factors play an important role in exceptional longevity. These factors are likely to influence basic mechanisms of aging, which in turn broadly influence susceptibility to age-related illnesses. Lacking genetic variations that predispose to disease, and having variations that confer disease resistance (longevity enabling genes), are probably both important to such a remarkable survival advantage. Recent studies indicate the likelihood that such factors will be elucidated in the near future.