Posted by Dr. Catherine Ball on November 6, 2018 in News

Today, I am proud to have the opportunity to highlight how the drive for discovery at Ancestry extends to our important research collaborations.

Three years ago, we announced a collaboration with Calico, a research and development company focused on the biology of longevity. Today, our first joint research paper was published in GENETICS, a journal of the Genetics Society of America.

In this research project, scientists from Ancestry and Calico collaborated to shed light on the contribution of genetics to human lifespan.  Remarkably, we determined that genetics has a limited effect on human longevity. Previously published estimates of the heritability of lifespan range from 15 to 30 percent, however our results show that heritability of human longevity is below 10 percent; that means 90 percent of human lifespan is the result of other factors such as environment, behavior, nutrition and access to health care. This raises the question: why have previous studies resulted in higher estimates? We suggest in our paper that these overestimates have not fully accounted for the effects of what the scientific community calls “assortative mating.”

What then, is assortative mating? It is really only the simple fact that people don’t choose their mates at random. Obviously, one cannot choose a mate based on his or her expected lifespan (it’s hard to estimate that even on a very good first date), but we often choose mates who are similar to us in many other respects. We might choose mates who live nearby, those who go to the same school or are of similar socioeconomic status. These non-genetic factors, along with genetic factors, combine to paint the whole picture of the forces that affect our lifespans.

There have been many previous studies on heritability of longevity that built the foundation for this research. We were only able to reach these deeper insights by using Ancestry’s powerfully large data set of multi-generational (and de-identified) family trees and cutting-edge science and technology that allow us to aggregate and combine these data.

Please note that Ancestry puts your privacy at the forefront. As a result, before we started this research project with Calico, Ancestry stripped all identifiable information from public family tree data except what was absolutely necessary for research. The information we retained included year of birth, year of death, place of birth (to the resolution of state within the U.S. and the level of country outside of the U.S.) and familial connections that make up the tree structure itself.

As an Ancestry customer, your many hours of genealogical research to build a tree is a legacy for your family. In addition, your hard work and dedicated research may have also contributed to this groundbreaking research paper, and for that, my co-authors and I are deeply grateful.

Dr. Catherine Ball

Chief Scientific Officer, Ancestry

12 Comments

  1. Rodney Jones

    It would be a GREAT help is concerning hints you would change to ignore all hints except those checked. This would save us alot of research time Thank you

  2. Dale Reed

    How far back in time do you go, to the 16th century or ? Data for birth and death are problematic as are trees that go back too far, possibly leading to erroneous results. There are a lot of very speculative trees on Ancetry or any other amateur tree listing. Keep up the work and have it peer reviewed. Thanks

  3. Jojo

    I don’t buy it. It is well known and accepted that long life tends to run in families, even families that are geographically widely spread and therefore live in different physical environments, eat different foods, etc. Could there be factors that your research overlooked or didn’t consider? For instance there are MANY entries on Ancestry with the wrong birth/death dates or multiple dates because someone is unsure of the correct data. And what of telomere length and its supposed relation to longevity?

    P.S. Can someone increase the visible comment box size while entering a comment from the current measly two line size?

    • Jojo

      Wanted to add that MyHeritage has a consistency checker that among other things let you know when you have common errors, like the death date is prior to the birth date. It would be good for Ancestry to develop something like this also.

      • JoyLJ56

        I have been working on my family tree for some years now off and on. The past few months I have been deligently working on mine and find it rewarding. I called Customer Service and and waited for 35 minutes and hung up. I called back the next day and a Rep. came to the phone and she was such a help. She actually taught me things I had not known and was the best at explaining in detail how to look, find answers, taught how to where to look for my tree needs and was delighted at her experience. I found out in talking to her she use to be a school teacher. Please this is such a difference in obtaining help someone who is willing and enjoys explaining. I can not say enough about Ms. Kalene ( sp?) . Please we need more Reps. like her. I would like to commend her and ask you to have her train others. Thank you and I continue to work on my tree and the information is challenging and rewarding.

  4. Suzanne

    Your research is based on amateurs propagating a family tree. I have used Ancestry for many years and have changed and updated my tree many, many times. During my 20+ years of research I have come across so many flawed trees. I have noticed that many just want a larger tree and are not overly particular where the information comes from. Many have taken information from my tree and used it as their own; as an example a person decided that my g.g. grandfather belonged in their tree. However, they had him married numerous times (probably from other trees) and siring children long after he had died. This is not an isolated case. If your research was based solely on Ancestry trees, I feel that it not credible research and majorly flawed.

  5. Monika

    We always try to come up with answers because answers appease us. There are two issues involved here. Yes there are an inordinate number of inaccurate trees on ancestry.com. The reason why we are aware of this is because the accurate tree owners have more of a tendency to become private trees when they see the “name gatherers” take data from their trees and turn this data into inaccurate information on their trees that then gets copied by others onto their trees, ad infinitum. Also, in our quest to come up with answers on longevity, we try to turn birth and death data into statistical data. You may have heard the saying “there are lies, then there are damned lies and then there are statistics”. My father was an orphan by the time he was 15 years old, loosing his mother when he was 8 and his father when he was 15. When I researched my genealogy I found out that my mother’s father died of a stroke at the age of 31. Her mother died of a stroke at the age of 41. My now 104 year old mother truly enjoys all that I, now almost 80 years old, am discovering about her ancestors and my father’s ancestors.

  6. Versie Bartlett

    I started with ancestry in 1995 and did some work that ended up messy. I didn’t know how to use the site very well. Now today I am trying to clean my tree up. It is time consuming and frustrating but worth all the work. I will feel accomplished.

  7. Kristi R Fogleman

    It has promise. I hope to see dna based, fact checked and confirmed info without any anecdotal “evidence” when paper and references out. The data pool needs to be massive and widespread and use only confirmed data.

  8. Frank Kucerak

    Sounds okay for as far as it went in this summary or overview type article. I’m guessing that the next phase would be to look at specific family lines. An example is a family where on the wife’s side, women trend to go to well into their 90’s with many over 100 going back to exclude Indian attack, war, fire, and child birth. Another is the husband’s side being more like late 50’s with a hereditary heart issue

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