'Super seniors' study hopes to identify genes that resist cancer
Michael Shulman, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Thursday, March 12, 2015 4:17AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 12, 2015 10:50PM EDT
Dal Richards made a name for himself as a big band leader in Vancouver.
The city's "King of Swing" spent 25 years playing with his band on a nationally broadcast radio show and at the age of 97, he's showing no signs of slowing down.
He's aiming to play his 80th-consecutive New Year's Party show next year.
The Vancouver musician is one of the 500 "super seniors" that have been selected to take part in a new study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. Researchers plan to analyze the genetic factors that have helped the seniors live cancer-free into their 80s, 90s and beyond.
Angela Brooks-Wilson, lead investigator and professor at Simon Fraser University, says the super seniors involved in the study could be "genetically protected" from "cancer-causing mutations."
"We are looking at people who have an exceptionally long healthy life and who have not developed cancer, and we are using them as clues on how to avoid cancer," Brooks-Wilson said in an interview with CTV News.
"We suspect … that there may be genetic factors that help people live longer, and … help them resist developing disease," she added.
Brooks-Wilson says that these genes are likely uncommon, since it took her and her team seven years to put together a group of the 500 super seniors needed for the study.
Researchers will analyze questionnaires, along with saliva and blood samples provided by seniors between the ages of 85 and 109. Their genes will then be compared to a database of more than 100,000 people – some of whom have cancer, and others who don't.
Brooks-Wilson says that the long-term goal of the study will be to identify genetic "override switches," which could lead to development of anti-cancer drugs.
"The idea is if we identify these genetic factors that we would then, in theory, try to go … (and) develop a drug that might mimic their effect in other people," said Brooks-Wilson.
While genetic factors likely play a significant role in the health of seniors, Brooks-Wilson says that lifestyle choices can’t be discounted.
"There is also lots of evidence from other studies that lifestyle behaviours, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet, cutting down on alcohol and getting regular exercise, play a huge role in not getting cancer," she said in a statement on Thursday.
And that's certainly what Richards, who says he walks a "mile a day to keep the doctor away," believes.
"I think exercise is very necessary … sitting in front of a television is not the answer," he said.
The 97-year-old also believes that his passion for music is partly responsible for his longevity and zest for life. Richards says he practices for 30 to 40 minutes a day, and still performs three or four times a month.
"I still practice my horn, my clarinet every day and try to maintain my standard of playing, which I'm not," he said with a laugh.
Fellow super senior, Robert Wiener, also credits his healthy lifestyle as a reason for his long life.
The 106-year-old retired oral surgeon says he still exercises daily at his retirement home, Westmount One, in Montreal. He rides his exercise bike, does two workout classes a week, as well as yoga and tai chi.
"If you're fortunate you have the genes to begin with that is a help but not everybody gets those genes," he said.
"You do what you can, exercise, eat properly (and) take care of yourself," he said.
The study is still looking for super seniors. Anyone over 100, or people who are 85 or older and have never had cancer, cardiovascular disease or stroke, dementia, major lung disease or diabetes may be eligible to participate. You can visit the Canadian Cancer Society's website for more details.