March 9, 2010
L’Chaim! Want to live to 100? Check your genes.
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“We identified that, in female centenarians and their daughters, there seems to be a very subtle mutation in the IGF-1 receptor, which controls growth,” said Cohen. Shorter women have a very subtle variation, he said, leading to lower levels of IGF-1 in the bloodstream.
“Everything else being equal, 5-foot-7 or 5-foot-3, the woman who is 5-foot-3 is more likely to live longer.” The same did not hold true for males, although researchers don’t yet know why.
This finding happens to fly in the face, though, of a current trend in which people who are beginning to show the physical signs of aging are injected with growth hormone for cosmetic purposes.
“When middle-age people take growth hormone,” said Cohen, “there are some improvements, they look a little younger — there’s no question that there’s an effect. However, these effects are superficial and don’t contribute to actual increased longevity.” This trend points to a division in the field of anti-aging — those who search for ways to live longer, healthier lives, and those who seek to retrieve the skin, strength and figure they boasted 20 years ago.
What has become abundantly clear over the course of the last decade is that longevity, as well as good cognitive functioning, is hereditary. And since we can’t control our genes, said Barzilai, the steady stream of information from the medical community about treating our bodies well to ensure that they work for as long as possible still holds true: Eat right, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, and keep drinking to a minimum, to name a few.
“Those are all things that are important,” said Barzilai. “They are likely to bring you from dying before age 78 to [dying] after the age of 78.”
In the meantime, Barzilai hopes that drug companies will soon find a way to turn his research into medicine, and the effort has already begun. Merck, a major pharmaceutical company, is developing a CETP inhibitor that will help increase levels of HDL, according to Barzilai. The drug is in Phase 2 studies, and may be ready as soon as 2012.
At UCLA, Cohen is looking into the possibility of daily injections of humanin-like peptides that could affect cellular growth. “We can deal with diabetes with this peptide,” he said. “It basically goes away, without having the side effects of insulin.” While this may take more time than the CETP inhibitor, Cohen added that if all goes well, it could be approved by the FDA in five or six years.
While these drugs may have the side effect of an extra few years of life due to improved health, Barzilai is adamant about the fact that he’s not out to push longevity for the sole purpose of allowing people to see another year go by.
“The goal of my study is to prevent the chronic, debilitating disease of aging,” he said. “The goal is quality of life, not longevity. If, at the end, people will live 85 years and die one day healthy, I’m fine with it. I wish that for myself.”
Since its inception 10 years ago, the study has grown to include another group of 70-year-olds with parents who lived to be older than 95; it now counts more than 500 centenarians, 700 of their offspring and approximately 600 individuals in the control group, composed of people whose parents both died before the age of 95.
And Barzilai sees no end in sight.
“It’s an aging study, so things are going to happen slowly,” he said. “[The offspring] are 70 years old, and I am 54 years old. [It will end] when I die.”
After 30 minutes on the phone, Biderman’s wife is calling in the background for him to wrap things up. But he has a few points to add. First, he believes that his lifestyle may have had an effect on his longevity. “I lived a real outdoor life,” he said of the years he spent in New Jersey as a young man. “Chopped trees, developed my good health.”
As far as his participation in Barzilai’s study, his attachment to it is that of someone who has seen many things come and go over the course of a lifetime.
“To see what, in a person’s lifetime, makes you last long, it’s a very good thought,” he said. “[If] it’s knowledge about what goes on in my cerebellum, what gets blown away like wisps in the wind and what stays ... if they can ever figure out what makes the difference, it will be worthwhile.”
Nevertheless, Biderman adds his vote of encouragement. “I hope you have some luck and find out what makes people live to 99,” he said before hanging up the phone.
“And,” he added, “stay Jewish.”