March 12, 2007 -- Parents who survive to 85 or older bequeath heart health to their descendants, a long-term study shows.
That's good news for the rare person who has two exceptionally long-lived parents. But it's also good news for the rest of us.
Why? At about age 40, the study shows, children of long-lived parents smoke less, have lower blood pressure, and have lower cholesterol levels than similar adults whose parents died before age 85. This means they are at much lower risk of and .
And there's a lot the rest of us can do about those risk factors, says study researcher Daniel Levy, MD, director of the Framingham Heart Study and a scientist at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
"Modifying these risk factors will increase your likelihood of surviving to old age without heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer of both men and women," Levy tells WebMD. "If we could eliminate , eliminate levels, and eliminate cigarette smoking, we would eliminate about 90% of heart disease."
Levy and colleagues at Boston University found that at the average age of 40, people who had two parents survive to 85 or older had fewer heart-disease risk factors than did people with parents who died before age 85.
And over 12 years of follow-up, children of long-lived parents had a significantly slower increase in heart disease risk. Having just one long-lived parent also seemed to slow progression of heart disease risk -- but not nearly as much as having two parents who reached age 85.
Will You Survive to 85?
Levy stresses that with a healthy lifestyle -- and, perhaps, a little help from your doctor -- you can have therisk profile of someone whose parents lived very long lives.
But you may not be able to match these genetically gifted individuals in life span, suggests Clyde B. Schechter, MD, associate professor of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y.
"You don't have much chance of making it to 95 or 100 unless your parents did, no matter what you do," Schechter tells WebMD. "For the common man, genetic background isn't as important as behavior. There is a lot you can do to determine how long you will live. But those things will get you from 65 to 85 -- not to 95."
If that's the case, why look at the small number of people who have inherited longevity? For clues, Levy and Schechter say.
Both of these researches -- and many others -- are trying to pinpoint the genes and genetic factors linked to long life. That work has only just begun.
"If we can track down the specific genes, and how they work, that may someday lead to discoveries of new approaches to preventing heart disease," Schechter says. "But products or new things people can do to make themselves metabolically look like people who live to the ripe old age of 100 -- that is a couple of decades away."
Meanwhile, Levy says, we are lucky to live at a time when so much is known about staying healthy and living longer.
"At the turn of the 20th century, the leading causes of death were infectious diseases. Tuberculosis, , cholera -- those kinds of things claimed more lives than anything else," he says. "Since the midpoint of the 20th century, the leading cause of death has been heart disease. Our grandparents couldn't do much to change the risk factors linked to life expectancy. But for us, today, that is an easy task."
The study, by Dellara F. Terry, MD; Levy; and colleagues appears in the March 12 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. An editorial by Schechter accompanies the study.