- Yulia Mayorova/Shutterstock
- Genealogy and DNA site Ancestry once partnered with Google’s stealthy life-extension spinoff, a company called Calico, to study the genetics of longevity.
- The new study suggests that our genes play less of a role in how long we live than previously believed.
- Instead, traits and behaviors that include everything from diet and exercise to friendliness appear to play a strong role in longevity.
- But surprisingly, we still pass these traits on through generations – mostly by picking partners who look and act like us, the researchers suggest.
The road to achieving a long life is littered with hype. The usual life-extension suspects include pricey pills and supplements; the peculiar involve infusions of young blood and chambers pumped with sub-zero temperatures.
Then there’s science. And one scientific factor that has long been presumed to dictate much of how long we live is our DNA. For decades, it was assumed that the genes we inherit from our parents explain anywhere from 15% to 30% of the variations in longevity that are observed between people.
But a new study that came from quiet collaboration between genetics company Ancestry and a Google life-extension spinoff called Calico suggests that our genes play less of a role in our lifespan than we thought.
Instead, traits and behaviors that include everything from diet and exercise to friendliness appears to play a strong role in longevity. Surprisingly, we still pass these traits on through generations – mostly by picking partners who look and act like us, the researchers report.
In essence, the findings suggest that people effectively transfer longevity from one generation to the next much in the same way that wealth and socioeconomic status are passed from parents to children: by choosing partners with attitudes and attributes that mirror our own, regardless of how different their DNA may be.
Picking partners who act and think like us
- seyfettin dincturk / Unsplash
For decades, researchers studying longevity and genetics had estimated that the genes we inherit from our parents play a significant role in determining how long we live. Previous studies suggested that genes account for as much as 30% of the total variability in lifespan between individuals.
But the new study from Ancestry and Calico indicates that our DNA may be much less important in determining longevity than traits and behaviors like diet, exercise, and personality. After looking at data from more than 54 million family trees and the birth and death information for over 400 million individuals, the researchers concluded that our DNA accounts for less than 10% of lifespan variability.
Instead, we pass on longevity through generations by choosing partners whose attitudes and attributes look much like our own. In research parlance, that’s known as “assortative mating.”
“The true heritability of human longevity for birth cohorts across the 1800s and early 1900s was well below 10%, and … has been generally overestimated due to the effect of assortative mating,” the scientists wrote.
Put another way, we tend to pick partners with attitudes and attributes – from eating and exercising to friendliness – that mirror our own. And as a result, we tend to live similar amounts of time, and have children who do as well.
How friendly we are and how often we work out may play a stronger role in our longevity than our DNA
Previous studies shed light on how important lifestyle factors are when it comes to how long we live. In a recent study published in the journal Circulation, for example, scientists pinpointed five lifestyle factors that appear to be linked with a significantly longer lifespan, judging by the outcomes of two long-term studies that involved about 123,000 adults.
People in the study who lived long lives tended to:
- Do at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day.
- Eat a Mediterranean diet.
- Never smoke.
- Stick to a healthy body weight.
- Drink no more than 1-2 alcoholic beverages a day.
As part of several other recent studies, scientists have uncovered a handful of personality traits that also appear to be strongly linked to longer-than-average lives. They include:
Taken together, the findings suggest that how long we live may be less a matter of what we’re born with than the circumstances in which we live and the choices that we make. Those choices, as the Ancestry and Google researchers acknowledge in their new paper, tend to be based on everything from social status to wealth and then, just like genetics, passed on from one generation to the next.
- Hollis Johnson
Perhaps you didn’t intend for that spit sample you shipped off to be used for research on antacids. But that could be what happens with some of the data that genetics-testing companies like Ancestry, 23andMe, and Helix have collected from billions of customers and stored in their databases.
Both Ancestry and 23andMe have a history of sharing anonymized consumer data with private companies, also known as “third parties.” Last week, 23andMe took that policy to a new level when it announced a plan to share the genetic data of millions of consumers with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to help the company develop new drugs.
23andMe also collaborates with handful of other drug companies and with institutions like P&G Beauty, the company behind Pantene shampoo and the antacid Pepto-Bismol.
Helix, the genetics-testing company spun out of Illumina, has partnerships with roughly 25 companies as well.
Here are the private companies that the biggest genetics-testing companies share data with
Apart from its partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, 23andMe has active partnerships with at least four other large pharmaceutical companies: Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Biogen, Pfizer, and Genentech.
Another 23andMe collaborator is P&G Beauty, the company behind products like Crest toothpaste, Ivory soap, and Bounty paper towels. In addition to these private partners, 23andMe shares its data with several public academic institutions and nonprofit research groups like the University of Chicago.
Ancestry, which maintains a 5-million-person consumer database of genetic information, once partnered with Google’s stealthy life-extension spinoff Calico to study aging. But a company spokesperson told Business Insider that Ancestry is currently only partnered with universities and research institutions. These include the University of Utah and the American Society of Human Genetics.
Helix has active partnerships with about 25 companies, according to Justin Kao, Helix’s co-founder and senior vice president of business development. Kao told Business Insider that the list includes at-home lab testing startup EverlyWell and healthcare provider Geisinger Health.
But unlike Ancestry or 23andMe, which have shared the data of millions of anonymized customers with private companies, Helix does so only when the user consents via one of those company partners. EverlyWell, for example, uses Helix’s technology to offer customers at-home DNA tests for food sensitivity and metabolism, while National Geographic uses Helix for its genealogy tests. Those companies may prompt a user to opt into research that they are doing, and only then would their data be shared.
Why genetics testing companies share your data with third parties
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
A big reason genetics-testing companies share data with third parties is for research. Many scientists want to learn more about the genetic roots of various conditions and diseases in the hope that this information will lead to better treatments or even cures. Both nonprofit academic institutions and drug companies are doing this kind of work.
“We all have some disease or health issue that we care about. 23andMe has created a research platform to enable interested customers to participate in research – to not wait for solutions to appear, but for people to come together and make discoveries happen,” 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki wrote in a letter to customers after the deal with GlaxoSmithKline was announced. 23andMe did not respond to a request for further comment.
The average customer who chooses to let 23andMe share their data for research contributes to more than 230 studies on topics including asthma, lupus, and Parkinson’s disease, the company says.
Similarly, Ancestry’s partnership with Google’s Calico was aimed at studying the genetics of longevity, though neither company has yet published any research that resulted from the collaboration.
How to choose what data you share – or delete it altogether
When you register your spit sample with Ancestry, 23andMe, or Helix, you’re offered choices about whether you want to share your data, when, and with whom. However, privacy advocates have pointed out that these options can often be confusing.
Plus, when asking customers whether they agree to share their data with third parties, Ancestry, 23andMe, and Helix all use different language to describe the choices and present the option at a different stages in the sign-up process. That can make wiping your data from any of those platforms difficult and time-consuming.
Furthermore, if a leak or hack were to happen, such incidents could allow your data to find its way elsewhere, perhaps without your knowledge.
It may also be difficult to prevent your data from being used by a new collaborator who wasn’t partnered with one of these companies when you initially signed up.
Through 23andMe’s 4-year partnership with GSK, for example, GSK gets anonymized summaries of data from customers who’ve opted to share their data for research. Privacy advocates find that vexing because the data of existing customers who may have previously opted into sharing their data could now be included as part of the larger base of data shared with GSK.
“The very setup of this venture suggests that its initiators are not quite serious about 23andMe’s customers’ informed consent,” Udo Schuklenk, a professor of bioethics at Queen’s University, told Business Insider via email.
It’s not easy to delete your information from genetics-testing platforms after you’ve signed up. (If you want to delete your genetic data from one of these sites, check out our guide). If you’ve opted to share your data for research, 23andMe could keep your physical spit sample – and the genetic data gleaned from it – for up to a decade.
- Hollis Johnson
- Genetics testing company 23andMe made headlines last week when it announced it would share consumers’ anonymized genetic data with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
- Companies like 23andMe frequently share customer DNA data with other institutions, also known as “third parties.”
- Ancestry, another popular company like 23andMe, had a partnership with Google’s stealthy life extension spinoff Calico to study the genetics of longevity. That partnership has now ended.
As is often the case in the world of scientific research partnerships, almost as quickly as a new deal begins, another ends.
Popular spit-in-a-tube genetics-testing company 23andMe made a splash last week when it announced a plan to share the anonymized genetic data of millions of consumers with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to help the company develop new drugs.
Ancestry, which maintains a database of genetic information built on the spit samples of more than 5 million consumers, had been partnering with Google’s stealthy life extension spinoff Calico to study aging and longevity. The agreement, which was finalized almost exactly three years ago, recently ended, an Ancestry spokesperson told Business Insider.
Apart from a 2015 press release announcing the agreement, neither company has said much about what the research partnership did.
Genetic testing companies frequently share customer DNA data with other institutions. These can include public research groups like state universities or private drug makers like GSK.
Looking at genetic data for clues to a long life
Calico was ostensibly interested in sorting through Ancestry’s treasure trove of genetic data to identify commonalities among people who live a long time. Data on individuals who live longer-than-expected lives compared to their shorter-lived family members might be especially useful. This could reveal common genetic traits among those longer-lived folks that might play a role in helping them outlast their peers.
“The Calico science team decided, what if we used a data set like what Ancestry.com has to identify people who have a longer-than-expected lifespan in their family?” Ken Chahine, the senior vice president and general manager of Ancestry, told Business Insider back in 2015.
Since then, neither company has published any research from the collaboration, but that doesn’t mean none was produced, someone familiar with Calico’s work told Business Insider.
“Ancestry previously had a relationship with Calico which focused on understanding human longevity and developing ways that all of us can lead longer and healthier lives,” an Ancestry spokesperson told Business Insider, adding, “This relationship has now ended.”
According to Calico, some of the results of its research with Ancestry will be published in a peer-reviewed journal soon.
Ancestry can share your anonymized genetic data with third parties like Calico if you opt-in to what the company calls an “informed consent to research.” This option comes up after you submit your spit sample during the online registration process. (If you decline the opt-in, your data will not be shared with third parties, the company says.)
Those third party groups can include for-profit private companies like Calico as well as nonprofit research groups like the University of Utah and the American Society of Human Genetics – both of which still have active partnerships with Ancestry.
How to delete your DNA data
If you choose to share your genetic data with a company like Ancestry or 23andMe, it can be a difficult decision to undo. Once you opt-in, the company will not wipe your genetic information from any “active or completed research projects,” according to its latest privacy statement.
However, if you’d like to stop your DNA data from being used for new research, you can.
Use the navigation bar at the top of the homepage to select “DNA.” On the page with your name at the top, scroll to the upper right corner, select “settings,” then go to “delete test results” on the column on the right side. Doing this will result in Ancestry deleting the following within 30 days: “All genetic information, including any derivative genetic information (ethnicity estimates, genetic relative matches, etc.) from our production, development, analytics, and research systems.”
If you want to take the additional step of having the company discard your physical spit sample, you must call member services.