Secrets of superagers: Does getting old have to mean getting sick?
Published Thursday, December 14, 2017 10:44AM EST
Growing old can be downright painful, and the aches and pains and various bodily failings seem to get worse the older we get.
But new research is finding that’s only true for most of us. Those who live to 100 and beyond appear to sidestep much of the disease and disability of aging, and scientists are curious to understand why.
Centenarians who live to 110 and beyond are what aging researchers call “supercentenarians.” They are exceedingly rare, since only about one in 5 million of us will ever live that long. But to scientists like Dr. Thomas Perls, of Boston University, they are fascinating.
Perls, through his New England Centenarian Study, has been trying to understand what makes super agers unique.
What his study has found is that “supercentenarians” embody a theory called “the compression of morbidity hypothesis.” In short, almost all centenarians manage to put off disability until their early- to mid-90s, and supercentenarians seem to delay it even further.
‘”People have kind of hung on to this myth that the older you get, the sicker you get,” Perls told CTV’s Your Morning Thursday.
“So people assumed that getting to 100 would mean a plague of age-related diseases. But what we found was that the vast majority of them (supercentenarians) are disability-free, well into their 90s.”
Perls and his team began their study because they noticed what seemed to be clusters of super-agers in places such as Nova Scotia, where people seemed more likely to live into their twelfth decade.
“In retrospect now, we’ve concluded that was just a chance thing; there aren’t necessarily clusters. But there may still be some familial component,” he said.
Families of healthy agers have a lot more in common than just genes, Perls’ team has found.
They also have a lot of health habits that are “conducive to longevity,” he said -- things like not smoking, eating a healthy diet (particularly a vegetarian diet), and staying active their entire lives.
DNA analysis of many of these supercentenarians has also unlocked information about how big a role genetics plays in longevity.
The research has found that there are probably more than 200 genes that play different roles in longevity – genes that affect the risk for cancer, dementia and heart disease.
Each of these genes, on their own, likely has only weak effects on longevity, Perls said. But as a group, they have a huge effect.
Perls likens it to playing the weekly lottery: getting one or two numbers right is not that unusual, but getting all the numbers right is a rare thing indeed.
His team’s mission now is to continue searching for the genes that affect longevity and then to try to understand how they fit together in the aging puzzle, so that researchers can understand why supercentenarians manage to live so long.
“Discovering these genes will help us decipher the biological mechanisms of how they do this,” Perls said.