Research published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology reveals a gene that helps explain why some people appear more youthful than their years. The gene, known as MC1R, is already well known for producing red hair and pale skin, and now it is also related to differences in perceived age. People carrying particular MC1R variants in their DNA look, on average, almost two years older than they are. “For the first time, a gene has been found that explains in part why some people look older and others younger for their age,” says Manfred Kayser of Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam (Netherlands). Earlier studies had shown that a person’s perceived age is influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors in roughly equal parts. Interestingly, perceived age has also been shown to predict a person’s health and mortality, suggesting that the age we perceive a person to be from the appearance of their face might also be related in important ways to a person’s biological age and health.
In this latest investigation, Kayser and his colleague, David Gunn, senior scientist at Unilever, searched the genomes of more than 2,600 elderly Dutch Europeans from the Rotterdam Study for DNA variants associated with differences in perceived facial age and wrinkling as estimated from digital facial images. The strongest hits for perceived facial age were for DNA variants in the MC1R gene. This finding was confirmed in two other large European studies. The association between these DNA variants and perceived age wasn’t influenced by age, sex, skin color, or sun damage. In addition to its role in skin color, MC1R is also known to play a role in other biological processes, such as inflammation and DNA damage repair. The researchers say the gene’s influence on these processes might be the reason it links to youthful looks.
While the researchers note that this gene is just one of many factors that influences perceived age, they plan to continue exploring exactly how it works and identify other genes that contribute to perceived age. Says Gunn, “We believe that using the perception of age is one of the best and most exciting ways to measure how ‘well’ people are aging, which we hope will lead to further breakthroughs in aging and health research in the near future.”