What Makes SuperAgers Super?
Supercentenarians are the one in five million people who live to 110+.
We all want to know their secret, and an increasing number of researchers are seeking the solution.
As with so many issues regarding people, we come across the classic, traditional “nature versus nurture” debate.
That is: are supercentenarians just super-lucky to have super genes?
Or do they follow all the greatest health habits regarding diet, exercise, and so on?
As with so many issues regarding people, the answer is not clear-cut or simple.
Studies done with twins have found that about 20-25% of your life and health spans comes from your genetics. The rest depends on your lifestyle.
One expert says the genetic component is much higher for centenarians: 75% to 80%.
In his book, Age Later: HealthSpan, Life Span, and the New Science of Longevity, The Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Institute for Aging Research’s Nir Barzilai discusses his extensive work finding the genes that make extreme longevity possible.
The Institute began its Longevity Genes Project in 1998.
They wanted to test three theories:
1. SuperAgers had perfect genes, with no imperfections.
2. SuperAgers had perfect lifestyles.
3. SuperAgers had some genetic variants that protected them from the genetic imperfections and lifestyle imperfections that make the rest of us grow old sooner rather than later.
The Institute focused on testing Ashkenazi Jews because they have uniform genetics, making it much easier to study, analyze and compare their DNA.
Of course, the Institute not only took DNA samples. They measured their subjects in many ways.
Many of them do NOT follow conventional health rules. Around half are overweight, some even obese. Helen Kahn smoked for over 90 years before dying at 110 (don’t try that at home unless you have her genes). But she did choose good parents. Her three siblings also lived to 100+. Her younger brother Irving Kahn managed money on Wall Street until age 108, becoming the only broker to have personally experienced the 1929 Crash and the 2008 Great Recession.
Only about half of the “SuperAgers” exercise, though they all remain physically active. They’re not couch potatoes.
They didn’t have easy lives. The author’s 97-year-old uncle survived six death camps in World War II, fled Czechoslovakia for America in 1968 when the Soviets invaded, and still attends three medical lectures every week despite having retired at age 94 from Baylor College of Medicine.
One thing most of them do is continue to live, not just exist. Despite their many years, they continue to work long past the standard age of retirement. Or they work as volunteers and maintain active social lives. They’re not sitting around, feeling lonely and sorry for themselves.
Therefore, the Institute soon ruled out the “perfect lifestyle” hypothesis. They tend to have great positive attitudes, but that can’t account for overweight, sedentary smokers living past 100.
Genetic testing soon ruled out the “perfect genes” hypothesis too. They have the same mix of good and bad genes we all do, depending on our ancestors.
For years now, the Institute has been finding gene variants in the SuperAgers that do seem to protect them from the harmful effects of their unhealthy habits (such as smoking) and prolong their healthspans. (Their healthcare costs for the last five years of life are 30% less than people who die at age 70.)
The goal is to figure out what these gene variants are doing to make SuperAgers healthier – and develop medicines for those of us who didn’t inherit those gene variants.
That’s terrific work, but it’s frustrating to read about.
How long before these medicines are developed and approved? How much will they cost? Won’t they have side effects like other pharmaceuticals?
Where does that leave lifestyle? Which is the only weapon the rest of us have now.
Populations With Large Percentages of SuperAgers
Barzilai says he choose to study Ashkenazi Jews because they’re genetically uniform and close to the Institute, with large numbers living in New York City and Boston. They don’t have more SuperAgers than other population groups.
What about those population groups?
Around twenty years ago, Dan Buettner began doing National Geographic specials on what is now known as the five Longevity Blue Zones:
* Loma Linda California
* Sardinia Italy
* Okinawa Japan
* Ikaria Greece
* Nicoya Costa Rica
Obviously, their genomes are quite different from the Ashkenazi Jews Barzilai has studied – and from each other.
Four of the five are basically rural, undeveloped areas. Okinawa, Sardinia and Ikaria are in officially “developed” countries, but the centenarians live in areas that are still pretty much pre-industrial.
The exception, Loma Linda, is in Los Angeles County but consists of Seventh-Day Adventists. They live modern lifestyles but retain strong social ties to other church members. And the church encourages eating healthy plant-based foods. Like people of all religions, not all church members obey all the rules, but they do have a much higher-than-normal life span. They also tend to remain active in both the church and charitable activities – and to retire later rather than sooner.
Buettner has filmed documentaries and written books about the Blue Zones and has found common factors.
People in these Blue Zones tend to eat predominately plant-based diets, work hard in their gardens, or at least remain physically active, drink moderate amounts of alcohol, and retain strong social bonds.
You Have to Wonder . . .
How long would Helen Kahn have lived if she hadn’t smoked?
Why doesn’t somebody do extensive genetic testing on centenarians around the world?
What would we learn?