The headlines trumpeted the news that the secret to “youthful looks” -- or even “eternal youth” – had been discovered in the “ginger gene”.
People with the gene that supposedly ‘produces’ red hair and fair skin “looked much younger than their real age”, one newspaper claimed scientists had discovered.
However, this was not only a gross over-simplification, but also an incorrect one.
The real story of ground-breaking research into the genetics of ageing was, predictably, more complicated and less sensational.
In a paper in the journal Current Biology, researchers from the Netherlands and the UK revealed they had discovered a gene that is linked with how old people look, as opposed to their actual age.
On average, those with a rare variant of the gene, MC1R, looked about two years older than their chronological age, while those with a more common variant looked two years younger.
Having the rare variant means people are more likely to have red hair, while those with the more common one are more likely to have dark hair.
However, the scientists told The Independent that it was a “step too far” to then conclude that people with red hair were more likely to age prematurely while those with dark hair could expect to retain a youthful appearance.
As David Gunn, a senior scientist at Unilever and a co-author of the study, explained: “It’s important to avoid misrepresenting the results of this study.
“Although the MC1R gene we identified to be involved in perceived age was also found to be involved in red hair and pale skin, the perceived age effect is independent of pigmentation as we tested for and showed in our study.”
And he said environmental factors – things like diet, exposure to sunlight and smoking – had a “much bigger effect” than genes.
“I don’t want people to worry if they have got red hair. It is just one factor and there are many other factors,” he said.
“Genes’ effects are not fixed, they don’t determine our ageing, they interact with what we do.”
The real significance of the study – largely overlooked by the media amid the frenzy over a clickbait story about people with ginger hair – was that it was a step towards a greater understanding of the ageing process.
Professor Manfred Kayser, of Erasmus University, who also worked on the study, said: “The results are exciting because it is the first time that a gene for perceived age was identified.
“It is also exciting because previous work of David Gunn has shown that people who look older die earlier than people who look younger.
“This implies there is a link between how old you look in your face and how healthy or sick you are. Therefore, we hope that by finding more genes for perceived age we will eventually understand the molecular links between perceived age and health.”
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