Why Some People Live So Long! Identifying What Enables Humans to Survive Past 110 in Good HealthMay 2013
By James Clement
Super-centenarians are very rare individuals. They have lived to at least 110 years of age.
In the United States, there are approximately 54,000 centenarians (people who are 100 years of age or older). Only about a dozen of these centenarians, however, appear to make it to 110 years old.1,2
Worldwide, only about 70 individuals have been verified to be at least 110 years of age or older.2 Surviving decades longer than their peers — often in far better health — super-centenarians may hold the keys to protection from disease, decline, and early death.
As you read their individual stories you cannot help but notice that many of these extremely long-lived individuals did not take the special precautions that you, I, and other readers of this magazine follow to maximize our health. Yet many of them went their entire lives without illness, and some without ever seeing a doctor.
Sadly, most of us are not as lucky to have been born with such “super” genes.
The Life Extension Foundation® is helping to fund an unprecedented project to identify those genetic variations that protect super-centenarians from disease and allow them to live nearly perfectly healthy lives until just shortly before their deaths. The objective is to enable scientists to create therapies that will bring the extraordinary protective powers of super-centenarians to everyone.
In May of 2011, researchers James Clement and Parijata Mackey left for Europe on a journey, partially funded by the Life Extension Foundation® , to study how super-centenarians avoid illnesses and live long, healthy lives.
These two researchers had attended multiple scientific conferences on aging. It was apparent that most life span research was done on short-lived species, such as C. elegans, drosophila, and mice. Human studies were largely limited to cells grown in Petri dishes, rather than studies of cells in-vivo. At the time, no one was actively collecting and analyzing large numbers of genetic and molecular profiles of humans who lived to 110 or older.
Before their journey, James and Parijata surveyed the existing scientific literature for studies on long-lived humans. Special focus was paid to research conducted by Boston University’s Tom Perls and Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Nir Barzilai. Drs. Perls and Barzilai had conducted extensive demographic and some single nucleotide polymorphism and genome-wide association studies on why these individuals lived so long without diseases.
Nir Barzilai speculated that long-lived individuals possessed genes that protected them from diseases, but neither he nor Tom Perls had been able to uncover these genes. Based on the research they had seen, James and Parijata decided that it was important to focus on individuals over the age of 105, especially men, on the basis that individuals who lived to this age would likely have these protective genes, if such existed.
Both Christian Mortensen (age 115) top, and Walter Breuning (age 114), second from top, loved their cigars. Dorothy peel (age 110) said she owed her longevity to drinking a mid-afternoon glass of sherry and an evening glass of whiskey every day (she quit smoking at age 104).
James and Parijata also investigated the work of the Gerontological Research Group and the Guinness World Book of Records, both of which document and verify the identities of individuals claiming to be super-centenarians. Based upon various public and private resources, they then built their own research study list of hundreds of individuals over the age of 105.
The Study’s Objective
The objective of James and Parijata’s current study involves a double comparison of the genomic and molecular data from extremely long-lived individuals. They first want to see what similarities super-centenarians share, and secondly compare super-centenarians with “normal” individuals, especially those who died having known illnesses, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, stroke, diabetes, etc.
Heredity of Longevity: (It’s Partially in the Genes)
In 1996, James Vaupel published a paper showing that, across several thousand Danish twins, approximately 20-26% of their longevity could be attributed to genetics.3 However, the mean age of the twins in that study was only 70 years—implying that these individuals likely lacked sufficient “protective genes” to have inherited “super” longevity from their parents.
The same researchers published another study of nonagenarians (persons from 90 to 99 years old) and centenarians, which noted that the discovery of genetic factors associated with exceptional longevity increases with the age of the subjects. This study, and many others, strongly suggests that the genetic component of exceptional longevity gets larger with increasing age, and is especially high for those aged 106 years and older.
Tom Perls of Boston University has published a study suggesting that “the older you are, the healthier you’ve been.”4
Perls’ group found that the siblings of centenarians have roughly a 3.5 times greater chance of reaching 100 years of age than siblings of non-centenarians.5
Even more astounding, the siblings of male super-centenarians have a 17-times greater chance of living to 100 than that of the general population.5
Whole Genome Sequencing: $350,000 - $99,000 - $20,000 - $10,000 - and Dropping
In early 2008, Dan Stociescu became the second human in the world to buy the full sequence of his genome. Dan paid $350,000 for this honor with the intent of helping to propel the direct-to-consumer genomics business forward.
In 2009, James Clement had his complete genome sequenced for $99,000. By early 2010, whole-genome sequencing had dropped to $10,000 to $20,000 a person—if you could afford to do large batches of genomes. Sequencing costs were falling nearly an order of magnitude about every two years.
James and Parijata decided that they would spend the next few years collecting the DNA of individuals over the age of 105. This would enable them to sequence and study this precious DNA once costs had dropped to an affordable level. They approached wealthy individuals and the Life Extension Foundation® to raise money for this project, and with a very limited budget, set out to meet super-centenarians around the world.
When conducting interviews with these long-lived individuals, James and Parijata would ask about lifestyle practices and whether they had longevity in their families. It turned out that, more often than not, they had led pretty normal lives, including smoking and drinking throughout most of their lives. Only a few reported that they had been active in sports or had regularly exercised.
Dr. Leila Denmark: 1898 - 2012. Lived 114 years
In March 2011, James and Parijata visited the Athens, Georgia, home of Mary Denmark Hutcherson. Mary lived with her 113-year-old mother, Dr. Leila Denmark.
Born February 1, 1898, Leila became a schoolteacher and then a pediatrician who practiced medicine for more than 70 years. Denmark helped develop a whooping cough vaccine and wrote a well-regarded parenting book, Every Child Should Have a Chance, now in its 14th printing.
Leila Denmark was the only woman in her graduating class of 1928 at the Medical College of Georgia, and only the third woman to graduate from the college. As co-developer of the whooping cough vaccine in the 1920s and 1930s, she was awarded the 1935 Fisher Prize. She continued to practice until she retired in 2001. At 103, she was the oldest practicing physician in the United States. Among her many other awards, Denmark was named Atlanta’s Woman of the Year in 1953.
She was among the first physicians to say that second-hand smoke posed a danger to children, and counseled that enjoying what you do and a good diet were two keys to good health.
She avoided eating too much sugar, a substance medical researchers are now beginning to suspect contributes to a number of health problems, including cancer. Those principles seemed to serve her well. Her parents died relatively young. Many of her 11 brothers and sisters — she was the third of 12 children — had heart disease, but Denmark enjoyed good health up until the last few years of her life.
Retirement came at age 103. World travel followed until age 106. She then left Alpharetta and came to Athens to live with Hutcherson, her only daughter. While there she enjoyed a few years of gardening before experiencing the first of a series of mini-strokes. This eventually led to her death at age 114.