Lifestyle of Centenarians Defy Expectations

We’re all interested in living a healthy, long life. For those of us who really mean it, our lifestyle reflects the discipline, restraint, and healthy moderation we think it takes to achieve a vibrant 100 years of life (at least). If you fit that category, reading things like “People who live to 95 or older are no more virtuous than the rest of us in terms of their diet, exercise routine or smoking and drinking habits” may be a bit of an irritation. Yes, you did just read that and we did just quote from a study conducted by researchers of Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University published yesterday, August 3, 2011 in the online edition of Journal of American Geriatrics Society entitled “Lifestyle Factors of People with Exceptional Longevity”. Feeling a little grumpy? Bear with me.

oldhandsw:cig.jpgThe age-old debate between Nature and Nurture rages on in the field of healthy life extension research– you can guess which side this study seems to lean more towards. “Nature” in this case comes in the form of protective longevity genes while “nurture” represents lifestyle behaviors and habits. This study, involving a few hundred centenarians, suggests that one’s genes may play more of an important role in living an exceptionally long life than one’s way of living.

The centenarians indulged in smoking and drinking just as much as their shorter-lived contemporaries. Their diets followed the same vein as others in the general population and they were just as likely to be overweight, perhaps even exercising less than the average person. What gives?

Senior author of the study, Nir Barzilai, M.D., the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research and Director of the Institute for Aging Research at Einstein, together with his colleagues, interviewed 477 independent Ashkenazi Jews aged 95 or older, a group more genetically homogenous than other populations. In this manner, the identification of genetic differences contributing to life span would be simplified. This population was questioned about current habits as well as their lifestyle in earlier years.

Now these researchers were intent on peering into the mystery of longevity through wide lenses–data collected in the 1970s were used to compare the long-lived group with another group of some 3,000 individuals from the general population born around the same time but generally didn’t get to make it 95 years of age.

To put it plainly: What they found was that people who lived to 95+ did not seem to have healthier lifestyles than those who died younger. Check out these numbers: 43% male centenarians reported exercising regularly at moderate intensity compared with 57% of men of the other group. Almost 30% of the long-lived females were smokers, a bit higher than the 26% in the comparison population who smoked. With the men, that percentage was significantly higher at 60% of the centenarian group compared to the 74% of their shorter-lived counterparts. About 24% of the men in the older group drank alcohol on a daily basis whereas 22% made that a habit from the younger group.

However, men and women from both groups were just as likely to be overweight. But there was one difference. Centenarians were less likely to be obese with only 4.5% of men in the older group compared to the 12% of the other male subjects. A similar pattern was found among women. When asked why they believed they had lived so long, most did not attribute their advanced age to lifestyle habits. 20% believed that physical activity played a role, 19% claimed a positive attitude, 12% to a busy or active life, 15% for less smoking and drinking, 8% believed it was good luck, and 6% attributed their longevity to religion or spirituality.

One finding that came as no surprise from the study was that about a third of the centenarians reported having many long-lived family members and relatives–previous studies of Ashkenazi Jews have helped locate a gene variant in the population that causes significantly elevated levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol in the centenarians that appeared to confer resistance Alzheimer’s and heart disease. For those of us who can’t claim the gene variant, there is potential good news, Dr. Barzilai says. There is a drug currently being developed that has the same effect on HDL as that particular gene.

“In previous studies of our centenarians, we’ve identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol,” said Dr. Barzilai, who is also professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein. “This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle…We’re identifying genes that play a role in aging and then we can design drugs to mimic their actions.”

While longevity genes may protect centenarians from bad habits, healthy lifestyle choices remain critical for the vast majority of the population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were nearly 425,000 people aged 95 and older living in the U.S. in 2010 – a fraction (.01) of the 40 million U.S. adults 65 and over.

“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,” said Dr. Barzilai. “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.”


O’ Connor, Anahad. “Centenarians Have Plenty of Bad Habits Too.” The New York Times Health. The New York Times Company, 4 Aug. 2011. Web. 4 Aug. 2011.

Newman, Kimberly. “Lifestyles of the Old and Healthy Defy Expectations.” EurkAlert! AAAS, the Science Society, 3 Aug. 2011. Web. 4 Aug. 2011.

Cornell Bio-Engineered Spinal Disc Implants Could Spell Relief for Back / Neck Pain Sufferers

If you’ve ever been struck with painful, almost total immobility because of your back or neck, then you know how excruciating it can be. Millions every year haul themselves to doctors for treatment and become part of a statistic for a broad category of illness called degenerative disc disease, a leading cause of disability worldwide. But now Cornell engineers in Ithaca are working in collaboration with doctors at Weill Cornell Medical College on a bio-engineered spinal implant that could someday spell relief for these millions.

“We’ve engineered discs that have the same structural components and behave just like real discs,” says Lawrence Bonassar, Ph.D, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, together with Roger Härtl, M.D., associate professor of neurosurgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and chief of spinal surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

rat spine.jpg

“The hope is that this promising research will lead to engineered discs that we can implant into patients with damaged discs.”

This new research will be published online Aug. 1, 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their other colleagues on the paper are Robby Bowles, Cornell Ph.D. ’11, and Harry Gebhard, M.D., of Weill Cornell Medical College. 40-60 percent of American adults suffer from chronic back or neck pain annually and though there might be a surgery called a discectomy (removing the spinal disk and fusing the vertebrate bones to stabilize the spine), they are for those diagnosed with severe degenerative disc disease or herniated discs. But the patient’s back will not likely feel the same as before.

(Bonassar Lab)
From left, a natural rat IVD compared with a tissue engineered IVD.

“Bone or metal or plastic implants are complicated structures which come with a mechanical risk of the structures moving around, or debris from the metal or plastic particles accumulating in the body from wear and tear,” says Härtl.

From a biological perspective, the new discs could create a “huge advantage” over traditional implants because of how they integrate and mature with the vertebrae. This major surgery would become less invasive, safer and come with fewer long-term side effects, he says.

How’d they do it? Focusing on the regeneration and analysis of musculoskeletal tissue, Bonasser and colleagues engineered artificial discs of two polymers- collagen, which wraps around the exterior and a hydrogel alginate in the middle. These were seeded with cells that repopulate the structures with new tissue. Extraordinarily, though artificial implants today degrade over time, the researchers are finding that the implants actually improve as they mature in the body due to the cell growth. Now that’s progress!

“Our implants have maintained 70 to 80 percent of initial disc height. In fact, the mechanical properties get better with time,” says Bonassar.

The scientists began collaborating on the project in 2006, first funded by an Ithaca-Weill seed grant. Since then, the project has moved into animal testing stages and has received several awards and accolades, a $325,000 grant from Switzerland’s AOSpine foundation and $100,000 in support from NFL Charities.

Isn’t this fantastic news? Regenerative breakthroughs are growing in frequency and affectiveness– help us get there faster!


Ju, Anne. “Back, Neck Pain Sufferers Could Find Relief with Cornell-developed Spinal Disc Implants.” Cornell University | Chronicle Online. Cornell University, 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 2 Aug. 2011.