Here’s a cold hard fact of life: Not everyone ages the same. Of course, anecdotally you know that’s true. Just take a look at Jennifer Lopez (and Madonna, Robin Wright, Demi Moore). But now there’s some evidence that ethnicity—and not just how much sunscreen we wear or how many cigarettes we smoke in our 20s—could be one factor that predetermines our rate of aging. A recent study conducted by researchers at UCLA and published in Genome Biology found that Latinos age slower than people of other ethnicities.
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Researchers analyzed 6,000 DNA samples from men and women mostly between the ages of 30 and 90 possessing genes from seven different ethnicities: Latinos, Caucasians, two groups of people from central Africa (the Pygmies of the Baka and Batwa populations and the Bantus of the Nzebi, Fang, Bakiga, and Nzime populations), African-Americans, East Asians, and Tsimane, who are indigenous to Bolivia and genetically related to Latinos. After studying the biological age of samples from the blood, brain, and saliva, scientists concluded that not only do women live longer in all ethnicities but that after menopause the biological markers in the blood samples from Latino women were 2.4 years younger than blood samples from postmenopausal women of other ethnicities. Read that sentence again if you need to. Latin women’s blood was across the board younger than anyone else’s.
Steve Horvath, a professor in human genetics and biostatistics at UCLA and the lead researcher of the study, says that while more research is needed to fully determine the cause of this discrepancy, he doesn’t think external factors are at play.
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“It’s probably not due to anything that people will think about,” says Horvath. “For example, it is probably not due to differences in smoking or obesity because we looked into that. It’s also not due to differences in income or education because our analysis adjusted for that. Other people will say that it is due to lower psychological stress levels—and although the biologic aging rate that I used here does have a little bit of a relationship to stress—I just don’t think that would explain this strong effect. I also don’t think that diet could explain it because we have found that diet has only a very weak effect on the epigenetic aging rate in blood.” (Epigenetic aging refers to chemical modifications of the DNA molecule—known as DNA methylation—that can influence how our genes function.)
Instead, Horvath believes that it’s Latinos genetic heritage. He proposes that the shared genetic ancestry with indigenous people such as the Tsimane from Bolivia could provide an explanation. “Latinos share some Native American DNA,” he says. “The Tsimane people, who are native to South America, have almost a Stone Age lifestyle. They forage and they grow some crops. But they had the slowest epigenetic aging rate in our study. The Tsimane don’t have many [of the] chronic diseases that afflict people in Western societies—like diabetes and heart disease—even though they have higher levels of inflammation due to infections and parasites.”
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Of course, that’s just one way of saying a lot more research needs to be done. For one, Horvath says he needs to extend the study from blood to other tissues and organs. (Of the 6,000 samples in this study, only 127 were East Asian of Han Chinese descent. Testing larger groups of similarly unique populations would yield a more nuanced and accurate result.) And ultimately, he plans to drill down in his research to determine the exact molecular mechanism that allows Latinos to age slower. As for now? Latinos can just feel #blessed. “I’m not aware of any particular diet or any physical exercise that would slow epigenetic aging effect,” he says. “It seems to me that it’s very much in our genes. Some people just get lucky.”
Latina women may age slower, but all the women everywhere in the world are equally beautiful. Here’s proof: