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January 4, 2011

Living to 100

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  National Institute on Aging

U.S. Administration on Aging

Aging with Dignity

Aging Research Center

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A long life is said to be a blessing, and a study of people who live to 100 shows it is — most of them enjoy amazingly good health. This ScienCentral News video explains that for some it's genetic.

At 101, Reuben Landau is the oldest practicing attorney in Massachusetts. He says he reformed his lifestyle after a heart attack at age 59, but before that he smoked and was overworked and stressed. So what's the secret of living past 100? "I have no secret and I am waiting for the results of these research studies. There's where the secret is," says Landau.

Landau is a participant in the New England Centenarian Study, which since 1994 has studied 1500 people who've lived to 100 and their families.

"I was surprised as a geriatric fellow to find a couple of centenarian patients who were just in exceptional shape," says researcher Thomas Perls, MD, from Boston University School of Medicine, who heads the study. "We imagine centenarians to have all these age-related diseases and certainly be on death's doorstep, when in fact we have found that most centenarians live the vast majority of their lives in very good health."

"Because it appears that living to a hundred is really a remarkable survival prowess, so to speak, we want to find out how they're able to get to such old age and much of it in such good health," says Perls. "Our average life expectancy in this century is about 79 almost 80 years, but we should be living probably into our mid to late eighties, more than ten yrs beyond that."

As reported in Discover magazine, Perls has found that most of centenarians' good health can be explained by healthy behaviors. But the secret to actual anti-aging drugs might be found in the genes of the exceptions to that rule — those who've passed the century mark despite poor lifestyle choices.

"There are some individuals that we're particularly interested in looking at, and that would be these folks who've basically thrown everything equivalent to an A-bomb at themselves and they're still getting to extreme old age," he explains. "It's a very small number but we've had some individuals who, for instance, smoked three packs a day for 50 years and yet there they are in their early hundreds without any lung disease, no brain disease, no cancer and you have to believe that they have something protective going on."

Revealing the genes that protect those lucky few could one day lead to anti-aging medicines for all. Some biotech companies are already working to develop them.

At the Massachusetts-based Elixir Pharmaceuticals, scientists are developing drugs aimed at genes that affect obesity and diabetes. "There are probably a lot of genes involved in the aging process, we're only working on a few of them right now and we'll sort of check those off as we go down the list and see which ones are effective," says CEO Bill Heiden. "And so we look at uncontrolled metabolic dysfunction as really a model for accelerated aging."

Obesity causes "metabolic syndrome" — in which insulin-resistance leads to diabetes, heart disease and other aging diseases, and anti-aging researchers say they have evidence that indicates metabolic function is closely linked to the aging process. "The medicines we're developing will be used initially to treat metabolic function or diabetes and obesity. And eventually they'll be used to extend lifespan," explains Heiden.

Perls says finding medicines that could reduce a person's susceptibility to age-related diseases such as diabetes would have a major impact on life expectancy. "They will effectively treat diabetes but importantly they're operating on these same pathways that should prolong aging, " says Perls.

But Perls cautions that life-extending drugs may be a long way off. He says our best bet is to take good care of ourselves. "And that's not exactly what the public wants to hear because these behaviors require quite a bit of willpower and work," he says. "And along the same lines, I think those in the anti-aging industry who already come out saying that they've found the 'fount of youth' or have come up with a pill that will make you young again, is just utter nonsense. And it's equally important for people not to fall for that marketing and to not burn a hole in their wallet and instead do the things that really make sense."

To help people modify their behaviors, Perls' website features an interactive life expectancy calculator www.livingto100.com. "It's based upon understanding the basic years that we as humans are endowed with," he explains, "and then based upon your behavior that you relate through the questions on the calculator, you're either deducting years or adding years. If you smoke, well it takes 15 years off of your life expectancy and if you're way overweight maybe it takes some years off. If you exercise your brain well it's going to add a few years. So really it makes people aware of the fact that their day-to-day behaviors really do add up to impact upon what their ultimate longevity is."

This research was published in the journal Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, June 2005, and also appears in "Living to 100," Basic Books, 2000, and was funded by Elixir Pharmaceuticals and the National Institute on Aging (NIH).

       email to a friend by Lindsay Carswell

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