Predicting A Time of Death

Harvard Medical School
Kevin H. Lin

Harvard Medical School

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School didn't intend to pinpoint a gene that can predict time of death, but somehow that's exactly what happened.

The Memory and Aging Project enrolled 1200 healthy people at age 65 and followed them with annual neurological and psychiatric examinations until they died. The researchers ultimately discovered a spot in the genome that is correlated with a full hour per day of difference in wake-sleep behavior, called a single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP. The variations among individuals' SNPs lead to differences in those same individual's natural daily rhythms, or circadian clocks.

But the gene's importance goes beyond sleep cycles. "There are circadian rhythms of almost all body processes, including blood pressure, digestion, [and] body temperature," Dr. Clifford Saper, one of the researchers and James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, wrote in an email. "There is even a circadian rhythm of death. In a normal population, there is a peak of deaths in the morning hours, with an average time of death around 11 a.m."

These findings have big implications for the command we have over our own body functions on a day-to-day basis. "A very large amount of the behavior we exhibit on a daily basis—early risers, or larks, vs. late  night people, or owls—is dictated by this one gene variation," Saper wrote.

According to the study, our dispositions are influenced by more than simply free will. Differences among the population can be attributed to a single gene, one that works in all of us and decides how well we function during the day, whether we like it or not.

So next time you find yourself having trouble waking up in the morning, you have more than sheer laziness to blame. And if you're now fearing the late morning hours, remember that some think you're luckiest when the clock reads 11:11 a.m.

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