Research on Those Living to 110 May Provide Clues to How Genetics Impact Long Life
There are many theories on why some people live to an extraordinary age and why they do so in remarkably good health. The secret to long life? Maybe we should look at the oldest people alive and see what we find.
The famous chef and cookbook author, Julia Child, when asked the secret to her longevity said, “red meat and gin.” 1 She only lived to 91. Goldie Michelson of Worcester, Massachusetts who lived to be 113, claimed that her longevity was due to “morning walks and chocolate”.2 Not unlike Jeanne Calment of Arles, France who ate two pounds of chocolate every week. Of course, she also smoked cigarettes for 100 years, and drank alcohol until she was 121. Jeanne lived to be 122; took up fencing at 85 and rode a bicycle until she was 100 years old.3
Then there’s Emma Morano of Verbania, Italy who was still cooking her own pasta until a few years before she died at the age of 117. Her secret? Raw eggs and no husband! 2 It is a fact that most supercentenarians (the name for those who live more than 11 decades) are women. The supposedly fair and fragile sex seems to have lasting power!
There is certainly some evidence that healthy longevity may be a result of healthy living and lifestyle, but recent research is delving into other factors that may contribute, like a person’s DNA and genetic sequencing.2 Just as some people have a genetic disposition for certain illnesses, perhaps certain genomes are more likely to promote long life.
The Real Secret to a Long Life
Most studies on longevity have yielded few clues to healthy aging; lifestyle and luck seem to factor heavily into why people live into their 90’s and 100’s. Their genetic advantage may be that they have inherited fewer DNA variations that create a risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other afflictions.
More scientific research is now being done, fueled by genomics, to determine if the “secret” to a long life lurks in our DNA. Scientists suggest that supercentenarians may possess genetic code that protects them from aging. The effort to unravel that code has been hindered by the difficulty in collecting DNA samples from these marvels of longevity. The biggest problem is that there aren’t that many of them -- of the 70,000 or so Americans who live to be 100, only about two dozen are stilling living at 110.
Enter James Clement, a lawyer, entrepreneur and “citizen scientist” who has launched a research effort that involves getting DNA samples from the world’s oldest people.2 He has collected DNA samples from supercentenarians in 14 states and seven countries over the last six years. It is, admittedly, a small sampling for a genetic study of this magnitude, but it’s a start, and researchers feel that despite the limited number of supercentenarian genomes to study, they may be able to identify the “secret sauce” of their longevity with methods used to research the genetic basis for other rare conditions.
Living a Long and Healthy Life
While driven to determine what genetic proclivities ensure a long life, James Clement and his team are just as concerned about a healthy long life. Why live a long time, if you aren’t happy, healthy and mobile? In addition to genetic mapping, they hope their research will provide insights into how to repair the damage that causes aging, as well as to prevent and turn back aging. One of Clements colleagues, Dr. George Church, a Harvard geneticist, has devoted part of his laboratory to research on the reversal of aging.
At Better Humans, a non-profit scientific research organization that studies the biology of aging and age-related diseases, researchers are engaged in an extensive, international study of individuals who have a strong resistance to serious age-related diseases — such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, organ failure, immune system failure, and neurodegeneration. 4
Supercentenarians seem to have avoided these severe age-related illnesses, so studying the protective mechanisms that have ensured their survival may lead to the discovery and development of new treatments and therapies, bringing the good health and great longevity of supercentenarians to the rest of us.
How to Live a Long Life
While research has yet to reveal what the genetic “secrets” to a long life might be, scientists are working on it. Meanwhile, existing research does support the value of keeping both your mind and body active as you age, with proper diet and nutrition, exercise, and other healthy habits, including staying socially engaged.
Case in point: Zenon "Babe" St. Laurent from Rhode Island, lived for 108 years, 8 months, and 1 day. At 107, he was still living on his own, managing a billiard hall, taking walks, cycling, and dancing three times a week at his local community center.3
Of course, there are no guarantees. Someone who has smoked a pack a day, never exercises and lived on bacon for breakfast, Hostess Twinkies for lunch and macaroni and cheese for dinner, may live to be a 105. And someone on a macrobiotic, vegan diet who runs 5 miles a day, could drop dead at an early age. Therein lie the genetic “secrets”. Some of us may be hardwired to live longer than others regardless of what we do or don’t do, and those who aren’t, may benefit from this cutting edge genetic research on healthy aging.
The average life span today in developed countries is approaching 80 years. In 1906, it was 48 years. What will it be in 2106?
Genetic Speak – A Glossary of Terms:
Nonagenarians: a person who is from 90 to 99 years old.
Centenarians: a person who is one hundred or more years old.
Supercentenarian: a person who has reached the age of 110.
DNA: a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms and many viruses.
Genome: the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism.
Phenotypes: whereas the "genotype" is the genetic makeup of an organism, the phenotype is how genetic and environmental influences come together to create an organism's physical appearance and behavior.