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.

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