Thursday, August 11, 2011

What it takes to live to 95

fron sweat science

I’m a big fan of studies (like this one from a few months ago) that paint exercise as a fountain of youth that will stave off aging. I’m less fond of studies like the one just published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, that suggest that longevity is in your genes, and nothing you do makes much difference (abstract here, press release here). But what you can you do? Data is what is (or “are what they are,” if you prefer — Audrey!).

The study: researchers interviewed 477 people between the ages of 95 and 112 to find out about their lifestyles way back when they were 70 (which was considered loosely representative of their adult habits): weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, exercise, whether they ate a low-calorie, low-fat or low-salt diet, etc. This data was compared to similar data collected back in the 1970s from several thousand people born around the same time, representing the general population. The punchline:

Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet.

Doh! On the other hand, the same research group has found distinct genetic patterns among people who live to be 100, such as one that gives them abnormally high levels of “good” cholesterol. So does this mean our longevity is written in our DNA and we might as well not worry about silly things like exercise and nutrition?

Well, there was one statistically significant difference between the super-agers and the general population: obesity. Being overweight (BMI 25-30) didn’t seem to make a difference, but fewer of the old folks were obese (BMI over 30): 4.5% versus 12.1% in the men, and 9.6% versus 16.% in the women. Still that’s a relatively minor difference.

The more important thing to remember is that this is a study of extreme outliers. So, if the results hold up and are confirmed by other studies, it may tell us that all the broccoli and chin-ups in the world won’t make you live to 100. You need the genes to make it that far. But if you don’t have the genes, then you do need the lifestyle factors to make it as far as possible — after all, there’s no question that factors like exercise and not smoking are linked to longer lifespans. They may not get you to 100, but there’s still a big difference between, say, 65 and 85!

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