We all know that even when people are exactly the same age, some of us look older than we actually are, and some of us younger. Many of these differences can be attributed to lifestyle choices and behavior, from smoking to sitting in the sunshine for too long, but what about the role of genetics? A new study, published in Current Biology, claims to have found a single gene that can influence whether or not someone is perceived to be older by up to two years.
The study, carried out by scientists in the Netherlands, involved looking at photographs of close to 2,700 people and estimating their ages, before then trawling through the subjects' genetics to search for any similarities. Surprisingly, they found that those carrying two copies of a variant of the gene in question, MC1R, were perceived to be up to two years older, while those carrying a single copy were seen as being one year older than they actually were, as opposed to those not carrying this variant. Interestingly, this gene is more commonly known for being involved in giving people ginger hair and pale skin.
“Discovering this first gene involved in perceived age is important, because it opens the door for identifying more, which we know exist, and we now know are possible to find,” said Professor Manfred Kayser from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, and co-author of the study, in a statement. “Our finding marks another step in understanding aging differences between people and provides new leads to identify the molecular links between perceived age, chronological age, and biological age.”
The MC1R gene is already known to be involved with the making of melanin and skin protection from UV, which would seem to be the mechanism that could potentially make anyone who has it appear older. But the researchers write that for the study they took into account the aging effects of skin color, wrinkles, and sun exposure, which would imply that the gene is acting in some other, currently unknown fashion.
While many other experts have commented that this finding may not be the fountain of youth, they have also conceded that the findings are of interest. “MC1R has been genetically associated with UV-induced skin damage, skin features like pigmentation, freckles and age spots, and with skin cancer,” João Pedro de Magalhães, a researcher of aging at Liverpool University, told The Guardian. “So it is perhaps not surprising that this gene plays a role in perceived age.”
The main question now is whether or not MC1R genuinely does affect aging, or just how pale someone’s skin is, and thus their perceived age. In addition to that, another expert not involved with the research has suggested that perhaps the study was measuring not the perceived age of the subjects, but the psychology and bias of the people doing the judging.
Whether or not the finding could be of significance is still unknown, with Professor Tim Frayling from the University of Exeter telling BBC News that, “whilst interesting, the authors admit that they need to find more genetic variation to have any chance of predicting someone’s appearance from DNA alone.”