Old and Healthy? Thank Your Genes
At 98, Harold Laufman plays the violin, prepares dinner for relatives and throws a joint birthday party with his 31-year-old neighbor. He is writing a book about life after 95 and calls his girlfriend “feisty.” The retired surgeon says, “I wake up every morning with an agenda for the day.”
According to research published August 3 in the online edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Laufman probably owes his longevity to the genes he inherited. Dr. Nir Barzilai, Chair of Aging Research and Director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, was lead researcher in a study that looked at over 500 Ashkenazi Jews. All were between ages 95 and 117 and were living independently. Three quarters were women. They were enrolled in the Longevity Genes Project.
The advantage of focusing on the Ashkenazi Jews was their genetic homogeneity. A trained interviewer asked questions about their lifestyles at age 70ódrinking and smoking, diet and exercise. The results were compared with responses from 3,164 people surveyed for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted between 1971 and 1975.
Genes trump lifestyle
Genetics proved a stronger predictor of longevity than lifestyle. Many of the centenarians drank, smoke and got little exercise, though a smaller percentage were obese than in the general population.
If that sounds like permission to be couch potatoes on junk-food diets, think again. Most of us did not inherit the longevity genes that give an edge in the aging game. Dr. Barzilai said, “Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity. We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan.”
What Dr. Barzilai does hope is that science can give us the means to delay age-related illnesses. He is inspired by the centenarians he studies and wants to help others maintain a high quality of life as they age. In the video below, he says, “I don’t know what age I want to achieve, but I want to achieve it healthy.”
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Photo from Urbankudos via Flickr Creative Commons