Old age is terrifying. When people grow old they frequently lose their memories, their ability to move, to take care of themselves, and then they die. Some people are lucky and do not fit this mold; they will live a very long time, not getting sick, living independently, and die peacefully in their 100’s. This is all determined by their genes.
People who age better and live longer have not necessarily earned it by going to the gym more often or staying away from alcohol, according to a study released August 3rd in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Actually, the study suggests that these centenarians have worse habits than the rest of us.
As part of the Longevity Genes Project, Nir Barzilai and fellow researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University interviewed and examined 477 Ashkenazi Jews between the ages of 95 and 112 who were living independently. They compared the data collected, including how often they exercise, drink and smoke, to 3,164 people who had undergone similar interviews and examinations in the 1970s as part of a federal health survey but have since died.
What they found is that the long-timers, by and large, were not vegetarians or overly health conscious. One 107-year-old woman had been smoking for 90 years. Only 43 percent of the men exercised regularly, compared with the 57 percent from the larger study. Thirty percent of the women smoked over 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, while 26.2 percent of the general population did. Dr. Barzilai and his team of researchers suggest that they may be “protected” from the negative effects of bad habits simply by their genes.
“I think that because their body and mind have not aged at a regular rate they can continue to lead active lifestyles,” Barzilai told The Jewish Press. On the other hand, he said he knew “many, very active people who died ‘youngish’ from diseases.”
One study participant, Albert Klass of Brooklyn, a senior executive of the Jewish Press, is 100 years old. He said that a researcher conducted a brief physical examination and asked him a series of questions, such as how he feels about his health, what his diet is, and how long his parents lived (his mother lived till 99; his father 93).
Klass also said that when he was asked to what he attributes his long life, he answered, “The Ribbono Shel Olam (G-d).”
The study’s results would seem to leave the rest of us with two options: either kick back and enjoy the good genes, or kick back and enjoy the bad genes if we are cursed anyway.
Barzilai warns that there is still more than enough evidence to prove that a healthy lifestyle can be beneficial in combating the aging process especially since we have no way of determining who inherits the longevity genes.
The long-term goal of the Longevity Genes Project is to create a drug to imitate the effect of these genes. Fighting old age one disease at a time is not working because as soon as one disease has been fought off, another one goes in for the kill. But the researchers hope that with this study, and more like it, they will be one step closer to developing a drug to slow the aging process and ward off age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.