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Longevity: Nature or nurture?

Fergus Walsh | 12:03 UK time, Friday, 2 July 2010

PepeI remember watching my wife's 94-year-old grandfather reverse his car out of the drive. Pepe's girlfriend was sitting next to him in the passenger seat. As I marvelled at his driving skills I also wondered whether his longevity and good health were down to the genes he inherited, or the lifestyle he led.

Two unrelated studies today add further food for thought. US scientists believe they have found a means of predicting how likely it is someone will live beyond the age of 100. The research is based on genetic markers found in exceptionally long-lived individuals. The scientists admit the prediction is not wholly accurate and they conclude that other factors, such as our environment, play their part.

Which brings me to another report, this time from the National Audit Office, which shows that the life expectancy gap between rich and poor in England is widening. This underlines the point that nurture plays a key role in how long we live. Smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise are significant factors.

It is important not to be fatalistic about your health and not to blame your genes for everything. Many people who have unhealthy lifestyles wrongly presume that their cards are marked at birth, so they may as well not bother. They may point to committed smokers who've lived to a ripe old age; such people exist, but far more end up in an early grave. At the same time, a healthy lifestyle is no guarantee of longevity. Life, as they say, is complicated.

How long do you want to live anyway? To 100, 120, or beyond? Most adults I discuss this with are far more interested in quality of life rather than simply living to extreme old age. The goal is surely to live not just longer, but healthier. That is an ambition which the NHS, scientists and individuals should all strive towards.

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