Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Study: The secret to long life is having the right genes

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

People who live to 100 and beyond have a unique set of genetic variations that seems to help them live 20 years longer than the rest of the population, researchers have found.
The gene clusters seem to trump disease-causing genes that would otherwise cause common problems of aging. Winning this genetic lottery, though, is no free pass: Exercise and healthy living still play a big role, scientists say.

The paper, in Thursday's online version of the journal Science, describes how scientists scanned the genomes of more than 1,000 centenarians, all Caucasians, from the New England Centenarian Study and found a cluster of 150 genetic markers that are highly predictive of extreme long life.

The older a subject got, the "stronger and stronger the correlation," says Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and senior author on the paper.

Scientists have always known that long life runs in families, but this is the first time they have had proof that it's a genetic trait. Looking at his or her genes, "we can predict with about 77% accuracy" the probability of a person living to 100, Perls says.

There isn't a publicly available genetic test for this cluster of genes, though Perls says someone probably will start selling one soon. A good surrogate is to look at how long people in your family live.

Genes clearly don't tell the whole story: 23% of those who lived to be 100 or older didn't have the particular set of variants, the researcher found.

What they also don't yet know is what the genes actually are doing to make people live longer.

The study found that centenarians can be divided into 19 different groups of "genetic signatures" that correlate with different patterns of exceptional longevity. "Some signatures correlate with longer survival, others with the most delayed onset of age-related disease such as dementia ... or hypertension," says Paola Sebastiani, a biostatistician at Boston University and lead author on the paper.

The good news, Perls says, is that most humans have genetic variations "to allow us to get to 88, which is eight years longer than average." The catch: To achieve that age, he says, you still have to live a healthy life — exercise, avoid obesity, don't smoke, don't drink too much.

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