Erasmus MC Press Release Rotterdam, 29 April 2016
How old you look is in your genes
Some look younger, others older for their age - new study provides first genetic explanation
A new study, released today, has uncovered the first genetic evidence explaining in part the difference between how old we look in our face (perceived age) and how old we are.

Researchers from Erasmus MC University Medical Centre Rotterdam in conjunction with Unilever, and other study partners such as Leiden University Medical Center, made the discovery following a large collaborative study on ageing led by Professor Manfred Kayser (Erasmus MC) and Dr. David Gunn (Unilever). During the project, close to 2,700 people of the Rotterdam Study were assessed for their perceived age in digital facial photographs. The team then examined more than 8 million variants in the DNA of the participants to investigate whether those who looked young for the age carried different DNA variants to those who looked old for their age. The findings were finally confirmed in more than 1,700 people from two independent cohorts.

This first-of-its-kind research, published today in the journal Current Biology, discovered that individuals with one form of a gene called MC1R looked up to two years older than those with a different form. Previously, the MC1R gene was mostly known for causing red hair and, with other genes, freckles and pale skin. Its perceived age association, however, was independent of skin colour and sun exposure as well as of age, sex, and wrinkling. Earlier studies showed links between perceived age and biological age as well as mortality, implying that how old we look is influenced by our health status.  

Kayser: “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. 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 next step is to understand on the molecular level why looking younger implies that you are healthier, eventually allowing to comprehend healthy ageing.” 

Gunn: “This research is tremendously exciting and opens up brand new understanding of why some people maintain a more youthful appearance as they age. By learning the ‘secrets’ of those who look young for their age, we can find innovate ways to help everybody keep younger looking for longer in the future. There is more work to be done of course but we are hopeful that this discovery could influence future product development and innovation at Unilever.”

Erasmus MC is the largest University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Our primary goal is a healthy population. Nearly 13,000 employees devote themselves every day to providing outstanding care, facilitating world-class education and conducting pioneering research. These professionals are instrumental in developing expertise on health and illness. They link the latest scientific insights to practical treatments and prevention measures to provide maximum benefit to patients and to enable healthy people to stay healthy longer. Being visibly better and leading the way in the areas of complex, innovative and acute care by collaborating with others: these are key ambitions at Erasmus MC.