Life is a Trade-Off: Genetically Programmed for Both Risk-Taking and Longevity

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Four flying Wagners: I’m pretty sure that Chris and I carry this gene variant, and we’ve passed it on to David & Laura.

The Journal of Neuroscience just published online results of studies conducted at UC-Irvine into the DRD4 receptor gene, showing that there is a link between a certain allele, the 7R allele, and longevity. People who carry the 7R allele of these gene are more likely to be extroverted and participate in active and high-risk behavior, as compared to people with the 4R allele, who are more likely to be introverted, prudent and careful. People with the 7R allele are more likely to have problems with addiction, ADHD, and generally risky behavior.

HOWEVER, they (or should I say “we”) are also more likely to be among the “oldest old,” and to stay healthy with minimal medical attention through their (our?) lifespans. The 7R allele has been traced along routes of indigenous people as they migrated out of Africa 50,000 or so years ago, with frequency of the allele increasing as people moved further and further from Africa, which also indicates that it’s linked with personality traits and behaviors useful for survival in unexpected circumstances.

I remember seeing a boy for his regular ADHD medication checkup, and trying to encourage him to get more exercise and outdoor activity, because he was obese. His mother said that he wanted to play outside more, but she didn’t think it was safe “these days,” so she kept him indoors or let him exercise outdoors only when she could join him.  They may have had different alleles of the DRD4 gene.

Risk perception is a strange thing. We are more likely to worry about the vanishingly rare but horrifying things like child abduction that are hard to prevent, and less likely to worry about the common things with long-term bad consequences like obesity, that are relatively simple to prevent. Obviously, something like skydiving is more risky, compared to just playing outdoors, and actively seeking risky behavior is different from encouraging a 10-year old to go outside and play. But it’s interesting that the people who choose risky activities are more likely to live longer, assuming that they survive those activities.

So, I guess this is another way of saying “Your life will either take you to the cardiologist, or to the orthopedist – which do you want?”

And here’s a picture of my grandfather, WB Huntley, who stayed vigorously healthy until his 90’s. I didn’t know just how much he influenced my idea of masculinity until I spoke at his funeral, saying something that I had just realized. “He had the straightest back and strongest hands of anyone I knew, and when I married Chris, he had the straightest back and strongest hands of anyone I knew.”

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One comment

  1. Martha Huntley · · Reply

    Live long and prosper!

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