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.
Catherine A. Ball, PhD
Chief Scientific Officer