03. 14. 2006
The search for longevity genes in centenarians
An AARP Bulletin on health reports that scientists are collecting data on centenarians in an effort to identify genes that contribute to long life. More specifically, researchers are looking for the genes that help certain people elude diseases that others are vulnerable to earlier in life. The AARP article begins with an interview with a 96-year old woman who's been a smoker for more than sixty years, has never been on a special health diet, and doesn't exercise. And she still has her wits about her.
Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, has been gathering data for the past eight years from individuals who have reached or almost reached 100 years of age. His discoveries so far point to protection from heart disease as a key element to longevity:
Since 2003 Barzilai has discovered three longevity genes, more than any other scientist. His discoveries appear to shield against heart disease, which is how they extend life span. Barzilai's team is also working on confirming the existence of a fourth longevity gene, originally identified by Thomas Perls, M.D., director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University School of Medicine. That gene, too, may play a role in heart disease prevention.
So, if healthy lifestyle is not a primary factor, then what are the predictors of longevity? A related article, Do You Have What It Takes, lists the common traits of long-lived individuals: (1) genetics - others in the family have had long lives, (2) slower rate of aging, therefore a delay in contracting life-threatening diseases, (3) a relaxed temperment (uh oh), (4) bigger than average lipoproteins (the molecules that carry cholesterol in the bloodstream), (5) very high levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.
The findings thus far seem to confirm what many of us have suspected all along: that some people simply, and perhaps unfairly, have the right genetic coding for long life. But there's hope for all of us as a result of these studies, as the goal is to harness the information to create chemicals that will mimic the biological advantage that some lucky few possess naturally.