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Choices Determine Lifespan,not Genetics, Studies Show

Posted Sep 13 2008 5:40pm

A lot of people have internal motivating factors that drive them along. One of mine is to not die young like my dad.

Before suffering an embolism that was caused by a broken leg, he had not taken good care of himself. I don’t think he would have slipped on the ice had he kept himself physically fit in the first place.

As years went by, virtually all my relatives died of heart attacks, so that became my primary bugaboo. I figured staying fit, something most of my relatives didn’t do, would add years to my life.

Fortunately, I never really bought into the idea that dying young from heart disease was inescapable. A few years back, I read a book called The Okinawa Diet Plan, which strongly reinforced my belief that healthy living can increase lifespan by decades. The problem with Western writings on this subject? A good diet didn’t really exist.

So I read with fascination an article in The New York Times, which reveals that many aspects of health, and particularly lifespan, ARE NOT GENETICALLY PREDETERMINED.

I particularly like the graphic that shows even height is only 85 percent based on genetics; weight 70 percent; memory 20 percent; and lifespan 3 percent. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those numbers get revised downward in a few years.

The Okinawan diet is another paradigm altogether. Elder Okinawans eat a diet based on soups, sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables and a tiny bit of fish. Those who eat the diet – and stay physically fit – often live into their hundreds in near perfect health. Those who eat the Western diet die as young or younger than Americans.

Much of the research in the Times article inadvertently explains why the Okinawan phenomenon is likely: genetics simply do not determine lifespan beyond normal human limitation, which has yet to be determined. Random events (such as a car crash), lifestyle, general health and nutrition do.

What does this have to do with parenting? Everything. Many people in this country seem to believe that poor health and shorter lifespans are inevitable. But if they are not, then how you raise your kids can have an enormous impact on their later years.

If only 3 percent of lifespan is determined by genetics, than at least some of the 97 percent can be influenced by choices. You can teach kids to not be reckless to lower the risk of car crashes. You can teach your kids to eat right and exercise regularly to increase lifespan.

In a way, I find this Time story a sort of validation for those of us who regularly chat about parenting. In my mind I hear this phrase: “Yes, it does matter what you do as a parent.”

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