Good genes, not lifestyle, get lucky few to 100

A woman in Bainbridge, Ohio celebrates her 100th birthday in June. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
A woman in Bainbridge, Ohio celebrates her 100th birthday in June. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Some studies, as a health reporter, I wish I could ignore — like the one published this week showing that diet, exercise, and other lifestyle choices don’t make a darn bit of difference in getting people to the 100-year mark and beyond.

“Tell me I’m missing something,’’ I begged the study co-author, Dr. Nir Barzilai, who heads the Institute of Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “There has to be something that centenarians were doing right!’’

He tells me, no, they simply won the genetic lottery, having the good fortune of being born to families that age slower than the rest of us. “But this population is just 1 out of 10,000,“ Barzilai explained. “They’re not us, the poor people who don’t have genes to protect us from smoking, lack of exercise, and a poor diet.’’

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The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, did find that men who made it to the century mark were somewhat less likely to have smoked: Nearly 60 percent of them smoked compared with 75 percent of their counterparts in the control group who lived an average lifespan. But women centenarians were just as likely to have smoked as their shorter-living peers.

And when it came to other lifestyle factors — exercise, diet, body weight, alcohol intake — the centenarians didn’t differ from their peers. The researchers asked them to recall their general health habits back when they were 70 and then compared the results to the prevalence of these behaviors in people who were born in the same year, as recorded in government surveys a few decades earlier, around the same time the centenarians were 70.

“Sure we asked them to remember back 30 years, but these were general questions,’’ said Barzilai. “Did you smoke, did you exercise, were you on any special diet?’’

The centenarians — all of whom were Eastern European Jews — would have recalled, he added, if they had been tri-athletes or had spent their retirement living on yogurt and meditation. “Some of them swore it was the chicken schmalz that kept them healthy!’’

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But it wasn’t the chicken fat or anything else within their control but rather, Barzilai believes, the longevity genes carried by these individuals that countered the effects of any disease-associated genes they also inherited. (The fact that they were all Ashkenazi Jews could limit the applicability of the findings to others.)

“Those who live to 100 get heart disease, dementia, and cancer, but they get them much later in life than the rest of us,’’ Barzilai explained. “Research suggests their whole aging process is slower.’’

In terms of practical application, I’d like to know whether I should quit running and eat burgers for lunch instead of blackberries mixed with Greek yogurt. After all, if I’m destined to live past the century mark, it won’t help me get there — nor will it help me get to 100 if it’s not in my genetic cards.

While that may be true, Barzilai said, lifestyle factors do play a prominent role in determining how well we age and how long we’ll live within the range that’s set by our genes. My 67-year-old father, for example, is much healthier than his own father was at his age, most likely because, unlike his father, he never smoked.

And studies in genetically varied populations of Seventh Day Adventists — who don’t smoke, follow a vegetarian diet, and believe strongly in exercise and social networks — have shown that they live an average of eight years longer than their neighbors who don’t practice the religion.

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“I can’t tell anyone to relax their good lifestyle habits based on our study of centenarians,’’ Barzilai said. And if you are lucky enough to have really old folks in your family, realize that it doesn’t guarantee you have those protective genes. It just gives you better odds.

“Unfortunately,’’ he added, “we don’t know until we reach our 80s or 90s whether we were lucky enough to get these genes or not.’’

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