DNA testing continued

DNA graphic

DNA graphicI had decided to take advantage of a special deal with 23andMe and get my DNA tested. I am hoping to learn a bit about my deep ancestry from my mitochondrial DNA in this test, as well as some genetic health risks and susceptibilities.

I tried to order the kit a few days before. I eventually realised that my first order with 23andMe didn’t go through, so I ordered again. I received confirmation that it has been sent, which I hadn’t had before, so obviously I had done something wrong, or not done something, before. So far so good!

Timeline so far:

9 Dec 2010 – I ordered a kit from 23andMe

10 Dec 2010 – Kit was shipped from 23andMe

13 Dec 2010 – Kit arrived at my front door

15 Dec 2010 – I spat my sample into the test tube

16 Dec 2010 – Sample collected by courier

21 Dec 2010 – Sample arrived at the 23andMe lab, and I was reminded to register my kit on the website

The process takes 6-8 weeks, so there will be no new updates for a while.

In the meantime, I had ordered some books from Amazon. That order did go through, and all 5 of them have arrived – 3 all at once and the other 2  individually. I’ve read the first 3, the last one being Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner’s Trace Your Roots with DNA, (2001). Even though the book is nearly 10 years old it gives an excellent introduction to the basics of DNA testing. They discuss the coming developments pretty accurately – more markers, more usefulness for mtDNA, more popularity and so better chances of matching with someone else’s test results.

All this reading has inspired me to more testing! I’ve ordered a test for my maternal uncle, and one for my unsuspecting father or brother.

I’ve also changed companies. I will be using Family Tree DNA for these and probably all subsequent tests. It’s not that I think that they are a better company, or do better tests; it’s more that they do different tests.

Family Tree DNA are more concerned with pure genealogy, whereas 23andMe are more concerned with the health aspects of DNA. It will be interesting to compare the two. Family Tree DNA has, as far as I can tell, the largest number of  projects.

A project is what you join if you want to find matches with other people who may be relatives. The pricing is less expensive if you join a project. Most of the projects are for surnames. My husband, for example, is part of the Bassett project, so he can see how closely he is related to other Bassetts around the world, and where their most recent common ancestor came from. There is little point in getting your DNA tested unless you want to compare it with others’.

Other projects are for geographic areas. My uncle is one of the last of a line of Easons, the first of whom came to Australia from County Tyrone in what is now Northern Ireland, so he will be part of the Ulster Project. The story we were told was that Eason was originally a French Huguenot name with a d’ on the front of it. I have not found any evidence of this as yet, but then my trail runs cold in 1813 with the marriage of Sarah Irwin of Clogher, Tyrone, to Richard Eason of Armagh.

Family Tree DNA do not use couriers unless requested, so this story will unfold a little more slowly.

Image courtesy of Chris Harvey at Dreamstime.

How to age well

It is a sad fact that for many of us the prospect of getting old is quite scary. We look around and see old people hobbling slowly along the street and we look away. We think of retirement homes with distaste, if not with outright horror. Is that what will happen to us? Will we become old and sick and unable to function normally? We can hardly bear to think about it.

Of course, if we do think about it we can all identify old people who are mentally and physically active and lead satisfying lives. But it seems a matter of chance – some are lucky, some are not. Better not to dwell on it.

However, it is not a matter of chance – it’s not about genes or bad luck, or being born into the wrong family. Studies by George Vaillant (2004) of the same people over 60 years show that aging well can be attributed to certain controllable factors, and they are not the ones we might think that they are.

He defined positive aging as consisting of six dimensions:

  1. absence of objective physical disability as rated by a doctor
  2. subjective physical health as rated by the person themselves
  3. length of undisabled life – whether the person had lost any years before age 80 to actual or perceived disability
  4. objective mental health as rated by success in work, love, play, and avoiding psychiatric care
  5. objective social supports – good connections with wife, children and grandchildren, siblings, playmates (eg golf, tennis, sailing) and social networks (clubs, etc) as rated by others
  6. subjective life satisfaction as rated by the person themselves

He used these dimensions to classify over 500 subjects from different class backgrounds (college and inner-city) along a continuum that ranged from “happy-well” to “sad-sick” at age 70-80. The happy-well tended to have high ratings in most or all of these dimensions; those with low ratings were more likely to be sad-sick, or had died before age 70-80. Then he looked at factors that had been measured earlier in their lives to see what contributed to this rating.

First let’s look at what did not predict positive aging. The happy-well did not have longer-lived ancestors, higher cholesterol, higher social class, warmer childhoods, more stable childhood temperaments, or higher stress than the sad-sick. Contrary to what we would believe, better genes, low cholesterol, social class, upbringing, temperament and stress-free living do not contribute significantly to a healthy and happy old age.

So what did contribute to a happy and healthy old age? Each of the following variables were shown to lead to a positive old age, regardless of social class or other factors:

  1. Not being a smoker or stopping smoking before age 45. Not smoking heavily before age 50 was the single best predictor of healthy aging, but if they quit smoking completely before age 45 the effect at 70-80 was much the same.
  2. Using adaptive coping styles. Coping styles involve the use of defense mechanisms to deal with stressful situations. We all use them, but some, such as humour, altruism and stoicism are “more mature” than others such as denial and passive-aggression. It is more adaptive, and healthier, to laugh at misfortune than to deny it is happening.
  3. Not abusing alcohol. Alcohol abuse was defined as “the evidence of multiple alcohol-related problems” with family, work, health, and the law.
  4. Healthy weight. Weight was measured using the body mass index (BMI). Being overweight (BMI> 28) or underweight (BMI<22) class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_1">positive aging.
  5. Stable marriage. Getting to age 50 without divorce, separation or serious problems contributed to positive aging.
  6. Exercise. Regular exercise of more than 500 kilocalories per week was required.
  7. Years of education. Those with higher education tended to stop smoking, eat sensibly and drink in moderation because they were higher in self-care, future orientation and perseverance.

This is great news for all of us. All of these factors are controllable – we can ensure that we remain healthy and happy into old age just by controlling our smoking, alcohol consumption, weight and exercise, and by working on ourselves and our marriages to cope better with stress and setbacks. The fact that a higher education makes us more likely to do these things should not stop us just because we didn’t go on to college or university.


Christopher Peterson. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vaillant, George E. (2004). Positive Aging. In P. Alex Linley & Stephen Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp.561-578). New York: Wiley.

At least you have your health….

I’ve been ill lately, and it was like my life had fallen apart. I couldn’t get things done, I felt bad about myself, I wasn’t getting anywhere in life. It wasn’t a serious illness, just one of those nasty infections in the head and the chest. Coughing, sleeplessness, blocked-up head…. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story. It seems like it has been going on for months, but I think the worst is over now, and I’m feeling like I can get on top of things again.

Have I been happy? I’d have to say no, I’ve been fairly unhappy. Health – 5-6 out of 10; Happiness – 3-4 out of 10. I’ve been rereading Harry Potter instead of writing blogs and being productive, and as much as I’ve enjoyed Harry Potter it’s not making me as happy as I am when I’m achieving goals and doing constructive stuff. No blog, no business-building, not much of anything really. And things that I really dislike doing are not being done, like housework; and looking at the carpet that needs vacuuming and the kitchen floor that needs scrubbing makes me less happy than I am when I look at it after it has been cleaned (no matter who does the actual cleaning!).

And I’ve been relying a bit on that old fallback stress-reducer – retail therapy! It’s a while since I’ve fallen for this, making myself feel better by acquiring stuff on eBay or in the local shopping mall, and I’m sure it’s related to being ill, since I didn’t have these cravings earlier in the year. I’ve been craving chocolate as well, another sure sign of unhappiness. The story of how I had previously managed to reduce my chocolate cravings are another story…

Now that I’m feeling better, I’ve been getting some work done, which makes me feel better about myself, and I’ve been getting out and about and seeing other people. No longer locked in my house seeing nobody but my husband, I am a social creature again, and I’m sure that this is making me happier as well.

So I’m convinced, as if I needed to be, that bad health means less happiness. Not only do I feel physically terrible but I can’t do the things that make me happy – working on something I enjoy; seeing other people; being useful and all that; and even the chocolate and the shopping doesn’t really help except in a short-term, superficial way. Today I did something I enjoy that I haven’t done for months – I repotted some neglected plants – and I feel so pleased with myself that I’ve come inside to write a blog about happiness, something I haven’t done for weeks. So as my health has improved my happiness has increased as I’ve been able to do things that make me happy.

Does it work the other way around? Can happiness make you healthier? Apparently, yes; if you are happy you will live up to 9 years longer, according to my current favourite TV program The Happiness Formula on BBC World. I’ll be looking into that one more thoroughly in a future blog.