We reported earlier this month on a study that said that the Mediterranean diet could slow aging because it's associated with longer telomeres, the protective structures at the end of chromosomes. Now, the results of another study tells us that the rate at which we age depends on the length of the telomeres we inherit. The longer the better. In other words, how fast you age depends on your parents.
"It is remarkable that so early on in life, there are already such major differences between individuals, both in humans and in animals," said Asghar Muhammad, one of the researchers behind the study.
The researchers at Lund University enlisted the help of small birds for their investigation. Using data from a 30-year-long study of ringed great reed warblers in Sweden, the scientists set out to find which hereditary factors affect the length of telomeres. With a long series of measurements, they were able to compare the length of telomeres in newborn chicks with that of their parents.
The results revealed that telomere length in the bird depends on a pretty even distribution of both hereditary and non-hereditary factors. The older the female is at the time of the chick's birth, the longer the chick's telomere. The non-hereditary factors involve the female, not the male, in that she can affect the hormone levels or antibodies in the egg yolk which the chick absorbs prior to hatching.
The obvious question now is: How do we differ from birds? Muhammad said that previous research has shown that in humans, there is a link between the father's age, rather than the mother's, and the length of the child's telomeres.
So does that mean the older our fathers are, the longer we'll live? Not exactly. While, yes, older dads pass on longer telomeres, those telomeres are also more prone to mutation, which tends to actually shorten lifespan. The trick is to find the sweet spot. There is a slight advantage to having middle-aged but not old fathers (over 65).
But like I said, the advantage is only slight. Ultimately, telomeres don't determine exactly when we're going to die. These genetic factors are important to understand, though, because they shape our lives. We've got to work with what our parents give us. But that doesn't mean it has to control our destiny.