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Lifespan is a trait of enormous personal interest. Research into the biological basis of human lifespan, however, is hampered by the long time to death. Using a novel approach of regressing (272,081) parental lifespans beyond age 40 years on participant genotype in a new large data set (UK Biobank), we here show that common variants near the apolipoprotein E and nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit alpha 5 genes are associated with lifespan. The effects are strongly sex and age dependent, with APOE ɛ4 differentially influencing maternal lifespan (P=4.2 × 10−15, effect −1.24 years of maternal life per imputed risk allele in parent; sex difference, P=0.011), and a locus near CHRNA3/5 differentially affecting paternal lifespan (P=4.8 × 10−11, effect −0.86 years per allele; sex difference P=0.075). Rare homozygous carriers of the risk alleles at both loci are predicted to have 3.3–3.7 years shorter lives.