Good Health Alone May Not Be The Key To Longevity

Reporting in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers write that exceptionally long-lived individuals appear no healthier than average Americans, with similar habits of smoking, drinking and overeating. Author Nir Barzilai discusses how lifestyle and genetics contribute to human longevity.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. You know, we are continually told that if you want to stay healthy, live to be 100, you've got to eat right, get exercise, stop smoking. But a study out this week suggests healthy habits may not be the key to a long life.

A survey of about 500 folks in their 90s and 100s found that they are no health nuts. They have the same unhealthy habits as the rest of us, no special diet or exercise. And one woman in the study had even been smoking for 95 years, that's right, 95 years she was smoking.

If it's not healthy living, what helps keep those - how come they reach 100? Is it just good genes, genes that somehow protect them against the environmental insults we all face?

What do you think? Got an extraordinarily long-lived parent or grandparent? Think you got a shot at 100? Give us a call, our number 1-800-989-8255. Go to sciencefriday.com, and leave your comments there, or go to our Facebook page.

Let me introduce my guest. Dr Nir Barzilai is a director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, and this research was published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Barzilai.

NIR BARZILAI DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR AGING RESEARCH ALBERT EINSTEIN COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Thank you, it's nice being with you.

FLATOW: Were you surprised yourself by those results?

MEDICINE: You know, no, the answer is no because I knew it all along. The smoker, 95 years, was one of my first subjects in the study. And actually the reason that I eventually published those results is because we're in the business of looking at what are the genetic contribution to exceptional longevity.

And we have found several genes, and in fact some of those genes are subject for drug development, but always I was asked, you know, maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe this group just kept the weight and exercised and did not smoke, and it was time for me to gather all this information and show that those guys were as bad as people in the 1970s and '80s, if not worse.

FLATOW: No kidding. So can you then make the blanket statement that forget about all this exercise and good food?

MEDICINE: Absolutely not. You know, those people are rare. They are unique. They are one out of 10,000. And they can do it because they have the genes. Whatever we know is still right for the rest of us, the people who are not naturally going to be 100, if we want to live healthy longer, if we want to get over the age of 80, if we want to live eight years more than others, we do have to go and do all those lifestyle interventions.

FLATOW: So what you're saying is if you do those interventions, you'll make it to, oh, your mid-80s. But if you want to get to 95 or 100, you'd better have those genes.

MEDICINE: Well, yes. If your family has longevity in the family, then you're at risk of being 100. But the reason we're doing this discovery is not just to identify who's in and who's out, we're doing that because those are biological pathways that can be intervened by strategies to develop drugs. And that's our ultimate goal: drugs that will slow the aging process and prevent age-related diseases.

FLATOW: Well, then, have you identified the key factors that slow the aging process?

MEDICINE: Well, we've identified - I don't know if it's the tip of the iceberg. There's probably several, maybe many, genes that can get us to age 100. But I'll give you just one example that I think is important because one of the first things we noticed in our 100-years-old is that their HDL cholesterol, that's the good cholesterol, was very high in the family.

And when I'm saying very high, it's 45 for men and 55 for women, but it was often over 100 in the centenarians and their families. And this was associated with a mutation in several genes that are controlling this good cholesterol. One of them is the subject for a drug development by one of the leading pharmaceutical company.

FLATOW: But you're saying it can't be just simple HDL level, can it?

MEDICINE: Well, HDL, HDL might be very important. But this is an association. So we don't know what the HDL is marking. It's not only HDL, you know. Their lipoprotein particle size is also larger. So maybe it's not HDL. Maybe it's the size of LDL. So we don't know.

There is association, but we can begin to look at the functional results of those genetic changes between centenarians and control and try to imitate that.

FLATOW: You know, my mother lived to be 98, may she rest in peace, and she always said she never felt old. She didn't - you know, who are all these old people around her, even when she was in her 90s. Did you find that in your - in the case of your folks?

MEDICINE: Yes, so, you know, first of all - well, first of all I suggest that you plan for a good retirement.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEDICINE: You know, you're at risk of living longer. I'm kind of worried. You know, NPR and the government now, so you have to take care of that. But, you know, I think we all know intuitively that we humans age at different rates. I think we all know somebody who's 50 who looks more like he's 40 or somebody who's 50 looks more like he's in his 60s.

And if you just understand that, you understand the reason of why we're taking maybe a population that's even more extreme, like in your family, to try and understand what it is because this is also associated with much less age-related disease and, by the way, less cost for health care.

FLATOW: Now, your study group was composed of all Ashkenazi Jews. Why people with the same ancestry?

MEDICINE: Well, you know, it's a technical - it's really a technical issue. When you're a geneticist and you want to do discovery, it's always better to go to a more homogeneous population because you are taking care of a lot of noise, or you're taking care of a lot of other variations in the genome. And that was planned.

And we think that we need few, you know, few hundreds less people to get the results than if we would have just got to the streets of New York and taken, you know, every color and race and others that have such a genetic diversity.

FLATOW: So where do you go from here with this study?

MEDICINE: So some of the genes that we found we found by having candidates. The example was when we found high HDL, we went to those 100 genes that control cholesterol. But what we are doing now is we're using more of an unbiased approach that acknowledges such that we can look at variations across the genome, or I would say millions of variations across the genome, in our population compared to population that's not going to have longevity in their family, and we are going to ask the technology to tell us what are longevity genes rather than we are trying to guess based on some previous knowledge or some other test. So that's one direction.

The second direction is that it's not only the simple genetics. You know, when we're all talking about genetics, and when I answered you, I was really referring to changes in the sequence of our DNA. But there are mechanisms that are called epigenetics. There are some things that can sit on the DNA and regulate it without the need to change any of the components of the native DNA.

So those are some of the directions of the research. We also are doing something else, and that is recruiting children of centenarians and people who don't have longevity in their family, and we are trying to see, to follow them as they age because we are going to get much more information, validate our study and really see how the certain genes are affecting the people who have them as they age.

FLATOW: Did the participants have their own formula for a long life? Did they have their own - think to themselves what led to their extraordinary longevity?

MEDICINE: So one of the things we published in our study is really their beliefs about factors contributing to long life. And the way we did it, at the end of a long questionnaire, we asked them: Hey, tell us why do you think you lived to be so old?

Several didn't have anything to contribute. Several contributed 10 different things. Some of them, you know, didn't exactly make sense to us. So the guy who eats chicken fat every day, you know, schmaltz, I'm not sure that this is really the reason he lived longer.

FLATOW: But you can't rule it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Sorry.

MEDICINE: But when we summarized everything - I think there is an interesting data there, and certainly number one, number one is good genes because more than two-thirds of them have really exceptional longevity in the family. Most of those who do not have because something happened or, you know, their parents died in a problem on a car accident or something, so we don't know what would have happened.

On the bad side, if you wonder about God, religion, spirituality, some of those things that are important for so many people, it's only seven percent of the women and 2.5 percent of the men that thought that God, religion and spirituality has anything to do. And that's surprising because I think even I, who is a scientist and not very orthodox in my religion, if I would get to 100, I probably would say thanks God. But he wasn't that popular with those guys.

FLATOW: I imagine you must have had many more women survivors.

MEDICINE: Right, right. The advantage of women is really much better when they go to those ages. It's basically across the world, for every 100 centenarians, 85 are women, and 15 are men. It's a little bit better in our studies because - for two reasons.

First of all, a lot of the women who are centenarians do not have kids. And in my study, we actually have to have an offspring. We have to have an offspring because of many reasons. But we are recruiting offspring of centenarians.

The second thing is, believe it or not, the men who get to 100 are in much better shape. And we haven't taken just 100 years old, we tried to get people who we knew are relatively healthy at age 95, live independently. So we were kind of selecting the best of the best, and the men are rare, but they are better at that age.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much Dr. Barzilai, and good luck to you.

MEDICINE: Thank you, thank you for listening.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dr Nir Barzilai is a director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, a look at bad science. When scientists draw the wrong conclusions, they deliberately fake data, who corrects them? What are the consequences? Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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