When you ask centenarians (100+) and supercentenarians (110+) about their keys to living a long, healthy life, the responses are generally adorable anecdotes about eating ice cream every day or spending the years with their soul mate. While modern science has yet to refute these arguments, researchers at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine and the Boston Medical Center have identified genetic indicators that could account for their extreme longevity.
Supercentenarians are extremely rare, occurring at a rate of just one in every five million people in developed countries.
Researchers, led by senior author and director of the New England Centenarian Study Dr. Thomas Perls, were surprised to find the two subjects had just as many disease-associated genes as the general population. For example, the man had 37 genetic mutations associated with increased risk for colon cancer and had successful surgery to remove colon cancer many years before he passed away.
The woman had genetic markers for Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. She did have congestive heart failure and some cognitive impairment, but neither condition impacted her life until she was 108 years old. What’s more, neither the man nor the woman carried most of the known genetic markers for longevity.
So how did these two subjects live such extraordinarily long lives?
“The difference may be that the centenarians likely have longevity-associated variants [in their genetic makeup] that cancel out the disease genes,” Perls said. “That effect may extend to the point that the diseases don’t occur — or, if they do, are much less pathogenic or markedly delayed towards the end of life, in these individuals who are practically living to the limit of the human lifespan.”
The study did discover about 1% of the subjects’ genetic material was new – not resembling any previously-identified gene or variant.
The research suggests a combination of rare and common genetic variants (essentially minor changes in DNA) may make up the recipe for living to supercentenarian status.