Health

Forever Young?

Google wants to extend life by getting into your genes

The average human lifespan in the United States is 76 years for men, and 81 for women. Fifty years ago it was 67 and 74. A hundred years ago it was 52 and 57.

Advances in medicine, early detection of diseases, and improved public awareness of certain lifestyle risks have increased our longevity. But no matter how well we eat or exercise, our bodies and minds will start to shrink, break down, and deteriorate. And we will all die.

What if you could delay that final curtain by 100 years? Would you want to?

What if you could delay that final curtain by 100 years? Would you want to?

Google is betting the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The world’s most powerful search engine is now searching for the fountain of youth with the help of AncestryDNA, a division of Ancestry.com.

The world’s most powerful search engine is now searching for the fountain of youth with Ancestry.com.

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Ancestry.com is the company that helps people find the missing branches of their family trees. AncestryDNA goes a step farther. For $99, they will analyze a sample of your saliva to determine your genetic background. Is it Russian? Cherokee? A blend of Scottish and North African? Only your genes know for sure.

Google, meanwhile, has created Calico, a  biotech company bent on extending the human lifespan another hundred years. As part of its deal with AncestryDNA (the exact terms were not revealed), Calico will be able to search Ancestry.com’s data to see if there is a relationship between your genes and your family’s history of longevity. If there is a genetic pattern for living longer, then maybe it can be copied.

For $99 they will analyze a sample of your saliva to determine your genetic background. Is it Russian? Cherokee? A blend of Scottish and North African? Only your genes know for sure.

Certainly there’s plenty of data to analyze. So far, 17 million people have used Ancestry.com to map their family history, and a million of those folks have used AncestryDNA to analyze their genetic backgrounds.

“Our common experience suggests that there could be hereditary factors underlying longevity, but finding the genes responsible using standard techniques has proven elusive,” said David Botstein, Calico’s chief scientific officer and member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Google isn’t alone in its quest to crack the genetic code for living longer. Boston University School of Medicine’s New England Centenarian Study has been at it for 20 years. So far, they have found at least 130 genes that play a role in the basic biology of aging — and in the diseases that commonly kill us — Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers.

Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrician and lead investigator for the study, said no single gene in itself has the power to alter the aging process. Rather, it is a complex “genetic signature” that results in long life. Perls said 90 percent of the subjects they studied could be grouped into one of 27 genetic signatures.

“These genetic signatures are associated with subgroups of centenarians, such as those that completely escape heart disease, or those that delay Alzheimer’s disease until the last 5 percent of their very long lives,” Perls said.

Whether those gene signatures can be translated into therapies for the rest of us is what Calico aims to find out.

In the meantime, the rest of us mere mortals should follow the advice of doctors and researchers who are in the business of slowing down the aging process — that living well is the best insurance. Most physicians say about 75 percent of what determines our lifespan comes down to lifestyle choices — like whether we smoke or exercise.

Seventy-five percent of what determines our lifespan comes down to lifestyle choices.

But Perls said this only matters for living into our 80s. Once you cross 90, the traditional ratio flip,s and 75 percent of what takes you to 100 or beyond is genetic.

“When you get the right genes in a group then you win the longevity lottery,” he said.

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