Aging is genetic … or is it? A Theory of Aging explored
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Aging is genetic … or is it? A Theory of Aging explored

For a very long time our ideas about aging have been tinged with a sense of inevitability … the belief that our genes determine how we will look and feel as we age. And what is worse … that there is nothing that we can do about it.

Just like planned obsolescence in computers, the genetic control theory tells us that our bodies are designed to break down as we head towards death. It basically claims that our DNA has a self-destruct button built into its core.

It is a grim scenario, yet one which most people have accepted for many years … with little complaint, and more importantly, little action.

So how much of the idea that aging is defined by our genetics is true?

The short answer is: not as much as we previously thought. Science tells us that only about 20-30% of our aging is genetically programmed. This leaves a whopping 70-80% up to other factors … most of which we can control.

Aging hand that snips the genetic code

While arguments exist about why and how the aging process occurs, scientists do agree that it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors and our own behavior that sets off and accelerates the aging process.

In general, it is assumed in the Genetic Aging Theory that the way we age and how long we live is genetically determined.

The idea is that we are born with a certain DNA that we have inherited from our mother and father and that this DNA defines how well and how long we live and when we die.

So basically, whatever way our parents (and grandparents) aged and how long they live, will be more or less the same for us.

Yet if genetics, your DNA, is so powerful in determining when we die, how can we explain the different lifespans of identical twins?

By looking at twins – who share the same DNA – we suddenly see how powerful we can be in controlling both how long and how well we live.

In very famous research, studies of identical twins show that environmental factors are exceedingly important.

If you would subscribe purely to the Genetic Control Theory, identical twins should … of course … look quite similar throughout their life and die at roughly the same time no matter what their lifestyle. Right? They do have the same DNA after all.

If we do really have a time bomb lurking in our genes, it should go off at the same time for twins whose genetic makeup is exactly the same.

Yet, it doesn’t.

The twin who eats, exercises and doesn’t smoke will not only look younger but also normally outlive the one who doesn’t … often by a wide margin.

This is irrefutable proof that how we treat our bodies greatly affects our lifespan.

Twins show that we are not defined by our genes only

Just having a certain DNA does not mean though that it is actually activated or, as researchers say, the genes are not expressed. It is to a large extent in your hand if and how your genes are expressed.

What about maximum lifespan?

Genetics do kick in though when we talk about the maximum lifespan, the longevity of a human … so how old you can potentially get.

At this moment it is assumed to be roughly 120/125 when we look at the human race. This will differ a bit from person to person depending on your personal DNA.

A few more recent theories say that we might be able to live up to 150.

Aging researcher Aubrey de Grey even claims that the first person to live up to 1 000 years is already born.

That might not be happening in the way we understand natural aging at this moment but scientists are working on ways to extend lifespan. And they have already succeeded in animal testing on roundworms, fruit flies and mice.

Can we control how we age?

There is one agreement though where scientists have by now found a common ground:

How we age throughout our life is greatly down to what we put in our bodies, how we control our stress, and how physically fit we are.

Therefore, it is clearly time to move past the old way of thinking that we are a victim of our genes and that these genes ‚decide‘ how we age and when we die.

While your DNA might set a maximum lifespan, what happens within that lifespan is a great deal more down to YOU and the way you live your life than was previously thought.

In another post, we look at the Free Radical Theory of Aging – and I will tell you how you can possibly combat one of the greatest aging and disease triggers through diet.

Ines O'Donovan, PhD
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