Americans Live Longer Than Ever – It’s All About Good Genes

Centenerians 2


Nowadays, a record number of Americans gets to celebrate their 100th birthday and even live beyond that age, as was recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  In 2014 more than 72,000 centenarians lived in the USA (of which 80% were females), representing a leap of 40% compared to the year 2000 in which only about 50,000 centenarians were counted.  What is the reason for this sharp increase in the 100+ group age in the USA?  Beyond the continuous improvement in the quality of healthcare services and the advancements in health technology, scientists have no clear answer.  Actually, the latest scientific trend in gerontology suggests a somewhat deterministic answer: it has mainly to do with the genes…


In reference to this data, Dr. Thomas Perls – a geriatrician and the Director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center – claims that 17% of the American population has the necessary genes for a life expectancy beyond the age of 100 years.  These types of genes were always there, but were not sufficiently examined.  “In the early 1900s and before, people could count on losing about a quarter of their children to infectious diseases and other public health problems” Perls said. “But with improvements in fighting diseases, people who are genetically prone to live past 100 are now far more likely to survive childhood”, he added.


Dr. Perls is not alone.  In a new research published recently in the scientific journal PLOS Genetics, a group of American scientists – including Prof. Stuart K. Kim, a gerontology researcher from Stanford University – write about this particular set of specific genes which enables longevity.  Per these scientists, some versions of diseases which are typical to old age are absent from the genome of certain centenarians.  These are diseases which are age-related.  For example, the researchers found that the APOE gene, which is involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, appears to be in a different form among many centenarians in comparison to the general population: “We have shown that one of the genetic mechanisms for extreme longevity involves the avoidance of certain risk alleles that predispose to common diseases, including coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s disease, high cholesterol and chronic kidney disease.”


Prof. Kim talked about this in his 2014 presentation, “How and Why We Age”, in which he referred to Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman from Arles, who passed away in 1997 at the age of 122, but was far from being a model of a healthy lifestyle. “She rode her bicycle until age 100, she smoked until age 116,” said Prof. Kim, adding humorously: “and what that shows you is that smoking is good for you, as long as you smoke for a 100 years”.  Prof. Kim concludes: “The world’s oldest people are not fitness nuts.  They are actually less healthy in their behavior than most of us. They smoke, they drink and they don’t actually eat very well or exercise very well.  The idea is that it is good to diet and exercise, and that will probably let you live 10 more years, but the main thing is to have the genes of Jeanne Calment”.


Dr. Nir Barzilai, M.D., the founding director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in The Bronx, New York, is widely quoted in Bill Gifford’s new book called “Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying)”.  Dr. Barzilai arrived at very similar conclusions after studying centenarian Jewish New Yorkers and finding out that many of them had bad eating habits, had been smoking and even were overweight.  Nevertheless, their blood tests were excellent, with very high levels of HDL – the “good” cholesterol.  Hence, it all has to do with genes.  Dr. Barzilai, together with Dr. Pinchas Cohen, M.D., the dean of the USC Davis School of Gerontology, located four genes which apparently support human beings’ longevity.


However, Bill Gifford reached a more restrained and multifaceted conclusion during his research.  In an interview with Healthspan Campaign, Mr. Gifford said: “Many of us tend to ‘tune out’ thoughts about aging.  I think it’s a defense mechanism that we’ve developed, over millennia, and it’s embedded in our culture… One of the things I found in my research was that people who pay attention to their health status, particularly in middle age, seem to have a much better chance at living to a vibrant, fulfilling old age.”  For your attention…