Ageing, genes, environment and epigenetics: what twin studies tell us now, and in the future

Age Ageing. 2012 Sep;41(5):581-6. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afs097. Epub 2012 Jul 23.


Compared with younger people, older people are much more variable in their organ function, and these large individual differences contribute to the complexity of geriatric medicine. What determines this variability? Is it due to the accumulation of different life experiences, or because of the variation in the genes we are born with, or an interaction of both? This paper reviews key findings from ageing twin cohorts probing these questions. Twin studies are the perfect natural experiment to dissect out genes and life experiences. We discuss the paradox that ageing is strongly determined by heritable factors (an influence that often gets stronger with time), yet longevity and lifespan seem not to be so heritable. We then focus on the intriguing question of why DNA sequence-identical twins might age differently. Animal studies are increasingly showing that epigenetic modifications occurring in early development and adulthood, might be key to ageing phenomena but this is difficult to investigate longitudinally in human populations, due to ethical problems of intervention and long lifespan. We propose that identical twin studies using new and existing cohorts may be useful human models in which to investigate the interaction between the environment and genetics, mediated by epigenetic modifications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / genetics*
  • Aging / physiology
  • Animals
  • DNA Methylation / genetics
  • Epigenomics*
  • Female
  • Gene-Environment Interaction*
  • Humans
  • Longevity / genetics
  • Male
  • Models, Animal
  • Phenotype
  • Twin Studies as Topic / trends*