Walter G. Wasser

Lifestyle Impact on Genetics: Adding Years to Life


In the realm of human health and longevity, the debate between nature (genetics) and nurture (environmental factors) has persisted for decades. While it is widely accepted that genetics play a crucial role in determining lifespan, emerging research increasingly highlights the potent influence of lifestyle choices. A groundbreaking study recently published in the journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine provides compelling evidence that a healthy lifestyle can significantly mitigate the genetic predisposition to a shorter lifespan, potentially extending life by over five years. This essay delves into the findings of this study, exploring the complex interplay between genetics and lifestyle, and underscores the critical importance of lifestyle choices in the pursuit of a longer, healthier life.

The Study: Scope and Methodology

The study in question utilized a large-scale cohort from the UK Biobank, involving 353,742 participants. Its primary aim was to explore the extent to which lifestyle factors can offset the effects of genes predisposed to shorten life. Researchers categorized participants according to their genetic risk of early death using polygenic risk scores, which assess multiple genetic variants to determine overall genetic vulnerability to a shorter lifespan. Simultaneously, they evaluated lifestyle factors through a comprehensive scoring system that included smoking habits, alcohol consumption, physical activity, diet, body shape, and sleep duration.

Participants were divided into three genetic risk categories: high, intermediate, and low. They were also classified into three lifestyle categories: favorable, intermediate, and unfavorable. This dual categorization allowed the researchers to analyze the impact of lifestyle on life expectancy across different genetic backgrounds.

Key Findings: The Power of Lifestyle

The study’s findings are both striking and encouraging. Individuals with a high genetic risk of premature death experienced a 21% increased risk of early mortality compared to those with a low genetic risk. However, lifestyle factors introduced a significant moderating effect. Those who maintained an unhealthy lifestyle had a 78% higher chance of early death, regardless of their genetic disposition. Most notably, for those with high genetic risk, adopting a favorable lifestyle could offset the genetic risk by approximately 62%, potentially adding an average of 5.22 years to their life expectancy at the age of 40.

The optimal lifestyle combination for longevity, identified through the study, included never smoking, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet, and ensuring adequate sleep. These findings underscore the pivotal role of lifestyle choices in extending life, even in the face of genetic disadvantages.

Discussion: The Interaction Between Genetics and Lifestyle

The implications of these findings are profound. They suggest that while we cannot alter our genetic makeup, we can certainly influence how those genes express themselves through our lifestyle choices. This interaction between genetics and lifestyle factors is a key area of interest in epigenetics, which studies how behavior and environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work.

Moreover, the study highlights the importance of personalized health strategies. Understanding one’s genetic risk can empower individuals to adopt specific lifestyle changes that can most effectively enhance their health and longevity. This personalized approach could revolutionize preventive medicine by allowing more targeted interventions that are tailored to genetic profiles.

Public Health Implications

From a public health perspective, the study’s conclusions offer a robust argument for policies and programs that encourage healthy living. Governments and health organizations could use this information to justify investing in public health campaigns focused on smoking cessation, promoting physical activity, improving diet, and regulating alcohol consumption. Such initiatives could reduce the healthcare burden associated with preventable diseases and extend population-wide life expectancy, particularly among those at high genetic risk.

Limitations and Future Research

While the findings are promising, they are not without limitations. The study’s observational nature means that causality cannot be definitively established. Future research could benefit from longitudinal studies that track lifestyle changes over time to directly observe their impact on genetic expression and longevity.

Additionally, the study primarily involved participants of European descent from the UK Biobank, which may limit the generalizability of the findings to other ethnic and racial groups. Further studies involving diverse populations would be essential to understand fully the global applicability of these results.


The study published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine is a landmark in the ongoing exploration of genetics and lifestyle. It vividly illustrates that while our genes play a significant role in determining lifespan, our lifestyle choices have the power to significantly mitigate this genetic risk. This revelation not only empowers individuals with the knowledge that they can influence their own health outcomes but also challenges society and policymakers to prioritize and promote healthy living as a tangible strategy for extending life expectancy. The message is clear: while we may inherit our genes, we can shape our destiny through the choices we make.

Reference:Bian, Z., Wang, L., Fan, R., et al. (2024). Genetic predisposition, modifiable lifestyles, and their joint effects on human lifespan: Evidence from multiple cohort studies. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. Advance online publication. doi:10.1136/bmjebm-2023-112583

About the Author
The author is a specialist in nephrology and internal medicine and lives with his wife and family in Jerusalem.