Genetic and Environmental Influences on Serum Lipid Levels in Twins

Debra A. Heller, Ulf de Faire, Nancy L. Pedersen, Gosta Dahlen, Gerald E. McClearn

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Background: The extent to which serum lipid levels are affected by genetic and environmental factors remains a point of controversy. We examined both genetic and environmental influences on serum lipid levels in twins reared either together or apart who participated in the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Aging. Methods: We studied 302 pairs of twins (mean age, 65.6 years; range, 52 to 86); 146 pairs had been reared apart. We simultaneously compared the twins on the basis of both zygosity and rearing status, which allowed joint estimation of genetic and environmental influences on serum lipid levels. Genetic influence was expressed in terms of heritability, the proportion of the population variation attributable to genetic variation (a value of 1.0 indicates that all of the population variation is attributable to genetic variation). The serum lipids and apolipoproteins measured included total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, apolipoproteins A-I and B, and triglycerides. Results: Structural-equation analyses revealed substantial heritability for the serum levels of each lipid measured, ranging from 0.28 to 0.78. Comparisons of the twins reared together with those reared apart suggested that the environment of rearing had a substantial impact on the level of total cholesterol (accounting for 0.15 to 0.36 of the total variance). Sharing the same environment appeared to affect the other lipid measures much less, however, than did genetic factors and unique environmental factors not shared by twins. Comparisons of younger with older twins suggested that heritability for apolipoprotein B and triglyceride levels decreased with age. Conclusions: The effect of genetic factors on the serum levels of some but not all lipids appears to decrease with age. Early rearing environment appears to remain an important factor in relation to levels of total cholesterol later in life, but it has less effect on other serum lipids and apolipoproteins in the elderly., Many studies have established beyond reasonable doubt that serum lipid levels influence the risk of coronary heart disease1. Although efforts at prevention have focused on the modifiability of lipid levels by factors such as diet,2 genetic factors also influence lipid and apolipoprotein levels35. The genetic factors described to date have been mainly those involved in familial syndromes of lipid disorders, many of which are determined by single genes. Recent advances in molecular biology, for example, have identified specific defects in the receptor for low-density lipoprotein that are responsible for the most common forms of familial hypercholesteremia6,…

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1150-1156
Number of pages7
JournalNew England Journal of Medicine
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 22 1993

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Medicine(all)


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