The Genetics of Human Longevity in a Nutshell: Only a Few Identified Variants, and Everything Else a Mystery

The human genetics of longevity are exceedingly complex, that much is possible to say from the research to date. Nearly every study of associations between gene variants and longevity in a human population identifies some correlations, and, barring just a few genes, none of those associations are found in any other study. So the genetics of longevity involves myriad tiny conditional contributions, each such contribution very dependent on a web of environmental factors and a network of other gene variants. This is one of the reasons why I see efforts to map the genetics of centenarians and long-lived families to be of only scientific interest. Given what we know of the genetics of longevity, research programs of that nature are very unlikely to deliver the basis for therapies that can make any meaningful difference to the pace of aging.

Human average life expectancy in developed countries has increased dramatically in the last century, a phenomenon which is potentially accompanied by a significant rise in multi-morbidity and frailty among older individuals. Nevertheless, some individuals appear someway resistant to causes of death, such as cancer and heart disease, compared with the rest of the population, and are able to reach very old ages in good clinical conditions, while others are not. Thus, during the last two decades we have witnessed an increase in the number of studies on biological and molecular factors associated with the variation in healthy aging and longevity.

Several lines of evidence support the genetic basis of longevity: from the species-specific maximum lifespan to the genetically determined premature aging syndromes. Studies in human twins, that aimed to distinguish the genetic from the environmental component, highlighted a heritability of life span close to 25%. In centenarians' families, the offspring of long-lived individuals not only exhibit a survival advantage compared to their peers, but also have a lower incidence of age-related diseases. On the other hand, population studies found that genetic factors influence longevity in age- and sex-specific ways, with a most pronounced effect at advanced age and possibly in men compared to women. All this evidence indicates that a genetic influence on longevity exists, laying the foundation for the search for the genetic components of extreme long life.

Consequently, over the past three decades, there has been a surge in genetic research, due in part to advances in molecular technologies, starting as studies of single genetic variants in candidate genes and pathways, moving on to array-based genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and subsequently to next generation sequencing (NGS). However, despite a plethora of studies, only few variants (in the APOE, FOXO3A, and 5q33.3 loci) have been successfully replicated in different ethnic groups and the emerging picture is complex.

For instance, it is an understatement to think that long-lived people harbor only favorable variants, completely avoiding risk alleles for major age-related diseases; indeed, there is evidence that many disease alleles are present in long-lived people. It is more probable that the longevity phenotype is the result of a particular combination of pro-longevity variants and risk alleles for pathologies, likely interacting in networks in a sex- and age-specific way. Finally, characteristics of aging are extremely heterogeneous, even among long-lived individuals, due to the complex interaction among genetic factors, environment, lifestyle, culture and resiliency. Population and study specificity, lack of statistical power for such a rather rare phenotype and missing heritability represent further hard obstacles to overcome in genotype-phenotype association studies. Thus, many challenges remain to be addressed in the search for the genetic components of human longevity.