Live long and prosper: Spock's greeting on Star Trek made clear that those are the ultimate values for the Vulcan race, and evidence indicates that the same holds true for humans. In the quest to live long, humans from time immemorial have been brewing up potions and spells and schemes, but alas, the clock ticks for us mortals, in spite of our hopes and cautions. The trick, according to many people, is to extend the timeframe as long as possible, and to that end, science has undertaken in earnest the study of those who live to be 100 or older, trying to discover their secrets. To date, the research has found no undisclosed food, chant, or medicine responsible for the exceptionally long lives of centenarians. In fact, a recent study suggests that those who live the longest probably can eat whatever they want, forego exercise, and hit the bottle.1
The study, out of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, involved almost 500 individuals living independently at age 95 or older. All subjects were Ashkenazi Jews, a group that has a relatively pure gene pool, making it easier for the researchers to identify genetic variants that may contribute to longevity.2 The subjects answered questions about their life-long health choices, diet, exercise routines, and so on back in the 1970s, along with a group of over 3,000 individuals who since have died. On analysis, it turned out that those in the long-lived group actually exercised less in their younger years than the individuals who died earlier. While 57 percent of those doomed to die younger exercised regularly, only 43 percent of the centenarians had bothered. Plus, other lifestyle factors didn't mitigate the lack of workouts. None of the centenarians followed a vegetarian diet. A substantial number of them smoked -- a third of the women and 60 percent of the men. In fact, a third of the older subjects smoked for more than 40 years. And while 22 percent of the dead subjects drank daily, so did 24 percent of the living subjects.
Go figure! Drinking, smoking, and making merry at the feeding trough? So what accounts for the long-life, if not healthy habits? If you're thinking it's got to be having a good attitude, scratch that from your list. Only 19 percent of the long-lived subjects admitted having a sunny attitude or thinking that their attitude played a role at all, and only six percent attributed their staying power to religion. A measly 12 percent claimed to have a busy, active life dispelling the idea that a filled social calendar has anything to do with longevity.
Most of the researchers say that genetics has to be the key, and there's plenty of research indicating that genes do play a major role in how long you'll live. In fact, 33 percent of the centenarians in the study also had long-lived family members. A 2008 study from the Pacific Research Center in Hawaii found that people who had a "biochemical misprint" in a gene called FOXO3A had up to three times the chance of living past 100 compared to those lacking the gene. The director of that study, Dr. Bradley Willcox, said, "If you got two copies of this gene -- inheriting one from each parent -- you hit the jackpot."3 Other studies found that decreased thyroid function might prolong life, and previous studies of Ashkenazi Jews found a correlation between long-life and a gene variant that triggered an abundance of good cholesterol. It's not that any one of these factors guarantees long life, but rather, that having the right genes might confer resistance to some of the diseases that typically lead to our demise.
Interestingly, one study finding that the scientists and the press don't seem to consider important is the fact that although similar percentages in both groups were overweight, substantially fewer of the centenarians were obese compared to the control subjects.4 In fact, almost three times as many men who died younger were obese compared to the centenarians, and almost twice the number of women. While it's true that fewer than 20 percent of all those who died were obese, the fact that the long-lived and the short-lived groups vary substantially from each other only on this one parameter seems significant, indeed.
It's significant because the way most of us folks manage to avoid obesity is by exercising and eating right. While those very few with the right genetic code might manage to circumvent the normal laws of biology, the rest of us simply can't. Jon Barron has written ad infinitum on the link between obesity and health problems -- and ultimately, early mortality. As he has noted, studies by the National Institute on Aging indicate that obesity can strip up to 20 years off of your lifespan. And so avoiding obesity is essential for almost everyone.
The bottom line here is that while a few people manage to fare just fine while ignoring all the guidelines and wisdom about what leads to good health, they are like the one kid in school who got all A's without ever studying. The rest of us need to do the work in order to pass -- or to live long.
As study director Dr. Nir Barzilai commented, "Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity. We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan."
In the end, it's really all a question of odds. Having good genes moves the odds several points in your favor. Being obese moves them several points against you. If you have good genes and you're obese, it somewhat balances out. But if you don't have the right genes, and you're also obese, you don't exercise, and you eat badly, whoops! The odds on living a long healthy life are not so good -- about the same as winning MegaLotto.
Let me add Jon Barron's wise advice from the November, 2010 newsletter:
- [Having a healthy lifestyle] makes a difference as to whether or not you actually make it to your maximum 75-85 years [or 100, or whatever that span is for you], or die at 60 from a heart attack.
- And maybe even more importantly, it determines the quality of life you have over the last 20 years of it and whether or not you'll require expensive medical procedures and an endless supply of debilitating prescription drugs to merely hang on as a stoned-out zombie for those final years.
1 "Centenarian's lifestyles not especially healthy." 3 August, 2011. CBCNews. 4 August 2011. < http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2011/08/03/centenarians-longevity-genes-lifestyle.html>
2 O'Connor, Anahad. "Centenarians Have Plenty of Bad Habits Too." 4 August 2011. New York Times. 4 August 4, 2011. <http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/04/centenarians-have-plenty-of-bad-habits-too/>
3 Hotz, Robert Lee. "Secrets of the Wellderly." 19 September 2008. Science Journal. 4 August 2011. < http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122176857706253591.html>
4 Stein, Jeannine. "Want to live a long time? Choose your genes well." 4 August 4, 2011. Los Angeles Times. 4 August 2011. < http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/la-heb-longevity-genes-20110803,0,5216590.story>