Why Some People Live So Long! Identifying What Enables Humans to Survive Past 110 in Good HealthMay 2013
By James Clement
James “Doc” Sisnett: Going on 113 years
James Sisnett was born in the tropical paradise of Barbados on February, 22, 1900. At nearly 113 years of age, he’s the oldest man in the Western hemisphere. Visiting Sisnett on the week of his 111th birthday, James and Parijata enjoyed a celebration that attracted many of the island’s top officials, including the Minister of Health. Sisnett’s nearly fifty living descendants flew in from around the world.
A perpetual grin seems to constantly delight those surrounding James Sisnett. He enjoys breadfruit, cognac, and flirting with the cheery nurses at his retirement home. One of his many granddaughters remarked that he has, “the memory of an elephant, the appetite of a truck driver, and a wicked sense of humor.” The next few days would prove how right she was.
Sisnett has enjoyed a remarkable bill of health throughout his life. At his birthday celebration he described the only doctor’s visit of his youth. With a mischievous twinkle in his eyes (and that perpetual grin) he relayed his story. “I had a toothache when I was nine years old. I was taken to the doctor, and do you know what the doctor did? He gave me a glass of rum! A nine-year-old boy, given rum! But it worked — my tooth didn’t hurt anymore.”
It would be the only “medicine” he’d ever need.
Currently, Sisnett has no known illnesses, suffering only from a hearing loss — which, as his family revealed, chuckling, sometimes serves as an excuse for Sisnett to pretend not to hear if he doesn’t want to listen to someone. Cataract surgery was performed successfully when he reached age 106.
A remarkable memory rivals Sisnett’s sharp sense of humor. Remembering names, faces, places, dates, and events has never posed a problem. The friendly ease with which he greeted his hundred or so guests by name made clear just how sharp his mind remains.
James Sisnett witnessed a century of the changed and unchanged on the island. He pointed out the new developments on the hillsides, and marveled at the unchanging nature of the white beaches, the pine forests, and the waves crashing upon the rocks.
Standing on the island’s western coast, we looked East across to Africa. There is no land between Barbados and Africa, nothing to slow the rough waves that crash upon the island’s western shore. The loud crashing where land meets sea is said to be a reminder of the cries of countless Africans, captured and enslaved, who perished on slave ships during the brutal crossing to the Americas. It’s a solemn reminder; history feels ever so close, standing with a man only one generation removed from this terrible chapter in our past.
Sisnett shared a strong connection to historical events with other “super” individuals. Mississippi Winn, a lovely southern belle, beauty and charm still apparent at 113 years of age, was born the daughter of two freed slaves.
Sisnett’s family is every bit as remarkable as the man himself. Despite inheriting type I diabetes from Sisnett’s first wife, his children lack the severe complications typical of the disease. All of his children look decades younger than their biological ages. His family shares his contagious wit, strength, intelligence, and sense of humor, and glow with such a warmth and kindness, they made the visit unforgettable. Their selfless contributions to this research can result in treatments or cures not just for diseases such as type I diabetes, but also for heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and so much more.
Johannes Heesters: 1903 - 2011. Lived 108 years
In September 2011, James, Parijata, and Kemal Akman, a graduate student at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, visited Johannes Heesters at his home in Starnberg, Germany. Mr. Heesters, born in 1903, was primarily a singer and actor throughout his life. Although born in Holland, he spent most of his life in Germany and Austria. He enjoyed champagne and chain-smoked for nearly a century.
When asked why he refused to retire, Heesters once quipped: “Should I just sit around at home, waiting for them to come and get me? I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Mr. Heesters posed for photos with James and Parijata and told them stories about his acting career, and sang a song for them. His wife, actress Simone Rethel, whom he married following the death of his first wife, presented them with an autographed copy of her book, in which she dispels the misconception that old age means illness, disability, and nursing homes. In December 2010, the 107-year-old Heesters announced that he had quit smoking for his then 61-year-old wife, Simone, saying, “She should have me as long as possible.” Johannes Heesters passed away on Christmas Eve, 2011.
Rhys Thomas Lewis: 1903 - 2012. Lived 108 Years
James and Parijata arrived in the UK and set up temporary headquarters in a small house in the university town of Oxford, near the center of England. They gathered the names and addresses of as many people as they could find who were over 105 years old, and began contacting them. About a dozen individuals agreed to meet with them and to provide DNA samples. Many of these individuals exceeded their expectations as to their health and vigor.
Shane Mackey, a biology student at the University of Chicago, and brother of Parijata Mackey, and James visited the home of Rhys Lewis and his son Peter, in Wokingham, UK.
Long life ran in Mr. Lewis’ family, with two of his sisters, Doris Williams and Megan Samuel, living until 102 and 99. Both passed away last year. Rhys was born in Wales on September 17, 1903.
A few lifestyle details were provided by his son, Peter. “He used to smoke, but gave up some years ago. He drank in moderation: he loved a glass of sherry for example, but that’s all. He ate well but not to excess, and disliked any ‘foreign’ food! He loved a good fry-up, fish and chips, and roast beef, and used to grow his own on an allotment.”
The family lived a modest life but “full of argument,” especially on politics but also history and economics (“which we inherited, and have passed on to our children”). “He lived frugally (like many of his generation, having survived two world wars) and was a keen saver. His will left over half a million pounds - he received two pensions (state plus teachers). He left such a sum because he invested very wisely, both directly in shares and through unit trusts.
“He could also become very angry (right to the end), and was especially angry at being hospitalized (a broken hip and hemorrhoids).” His son, Peter, continued his commentary. “I wonder if he suffered short-term memory loss towards the end, because this seems to be a problem with some old people, that they forget their accidents and can’t understand why they are in hospital!
“But his long-term memory improved (surprisingly) as he aged, having time to excavate his sub-conscious I suppose. He even came up with stories from his childhood I had never heard before. For example, Rhys left home at 13 to become a miner, but continued to improve himself by taking night school and eventually leaving mining to attend Swansea University. Before he retired at 67 years of age, he was head of history at Easthampton Park College of Education in Berkshire.”
Rhys died on July 4, 2012, just a few months short of his 109th birthday, the oldest living Welshman, at that time.
Social, Outgoing, Happy, Nearly Illness-Free and Otherwise “Normal”
According to the Max Plank Institute, super-centenarians make up only 0.05 per million of the population. After meeting several dozen centenarians and super-centenarians, James and Parijata have concluded that they are indeed very special people, both biologically and in personality. Nearly all of them were quite social, outgoing individuals with cheerful dispositions. These genetically fortunate individuals lived nearly illness-free lives, with many of them never having seen a doctor, all the while having smoked, drank, and generally having lived very average lifestyles.
One typical story was recounted by a retirement home director, who shall remain nameless. A stomach virus swept through their community. It killed several residents, and made residents and staff alike ill for weeks. The super-centenarian in question got sick the night of the outbreak—but by the next morning he was fully recovered, and asked for his regular breakfast. The manager said he’d never seen anything so amazing for someone of that age. Wouldn’t we all like to be as resilient as this super-centenarian?
James and Parijata continue to collect DNA samples from the extremely long-lived while focusing on the analysis of the dozens of whole-genomes thus far sequenced. They are now working with their chief scientific adviser, Dr. George Church of Harvard Medical School, to identify the variations that protect these individuals from disease and allow them to live nearly perfectly healthy lives until just shortly before their deaths.
Life Extension Foundation® has agreed to advance this research by sponsoring a gene-expression research study. Blood tests will be used to look at bio-markers that have been discovered that relate to the biological age of an individual’s various organs as compared to their chronological age. This Life Extension Foundation®-sponsored research study should begin sometime in mid-2013.
- Available at: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-09.pdf. Accessed January 10, 2013.
- Available at: http://www.grg.org/Adams/E.HTM. Accessed January 10, 2013.
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- Perls TT, Wilmoth J, Levenson R, et al. Life-long sustained mortality advantage of siblings of centenarians. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2002;99:8442-47.