Can our genes tell us our death date?

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Can our genes tell us our death date?

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Another genetics story hit the headline this week.

A few weeks ago I reported that scientists were sequencing Ozzy Osborne’s genome to find out how the hell-raiser has managed to survive so long, now we hear that scientists have discovered a way of carrying out a genetic test to find out if you will make it past 100.

Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine in the US studied the DNA of 1,600 centenarians and compared it with the DNA of others.  See the news story here.

They highlighted 150 genetic changes which were more common in people over 100. They could be broken down into 19 groups, or genetic ‘signatures’.  Using the appearance of these signatures, they found that they could predict with 77% accuracy, if the person was from the over-100 group.

The researchers said that the aim of the research was to understand the genetic reasons why some people live longer than others despite having similar lifestyles.  All very interesting however the researchers are not patenting the information, meaning there is nothing to stop a biotech company creating an easy-to-use commercial kit and this I find worrying.

The decision whether this kind of technology should be available to the public makes for an interesting debate, and would fit in nicely with a GCSE lesson on developing arguments.  Part of the ‘How science works’ area of each GCSE specification asks students to look at how opinions may be influenced by economic, ethical, moral, social or cultural considerations.

For example – would allowing people to find this information out influence their pension payouts?

Will people with the ‘long-life’ genes not care about leading a healthy lifestyle?  The study found out that one in 15 people has the right combination of genes to live to 100 – but just one in 600 does, meaning factors like standard of living, access to healthcare, diet and exercise are hugely important.

How will people react when they are given the news that their life could be longer or shorter than they had expected?  Isn’t it best that we don’t know when we will die?

On the other hand – maybe it will help people to plan their lives if they know if they will die early.  No putting off retirement or doing those odd jobs around the house.

One last thing – if you are desperate to know how old you will live to then I can recommend a couple of low tech but perhaps just as valid ways of finding out this information:

Living to 100 calculator (for adults)

Deathtimer (for adults and kids)