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As the brain ages, it weathers a constant onslaught from these destructive oxygen ions. The body is able to patch over tiny dings and cuts in the genome, but over time, the genetic fixers can no longer keep up, and the function of the gene is compromised. The balance between wear and repair may be the key to a healthily aging brain. By scanning the genomes of centenarians, Yankner hopes to isolate the genes and the biological processes attached to them that help them stay ahead of the damage. Those might then be harnessed to give noncentenarians the same edge.
That work might also begin to explain the growing body of evidence behind the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis, which suggests that people can improve their odds of remaining mentally alert by keeping their minds engaged. Learning a new language, picking up a hobby and maintaining a rich network of social connections are all ways to keep brain neurons firing. Yankner and others hope to isolate which brain circuits seem to be most active in this process.
A Different Kind of Youth
If everyone could begin to mimic what the centenarians do naturally, we'd all benefit as the Hurlburts vividly illustrate. Agnes was mentally nimble enough as she aged that she learned to drive when she was 63, and she only recently gave up her license ("I was a very fast driver, but they never caught me," she confesses); Walter, 84, is an accomplished painter; Muriel, 89, writes poetry and sews quilts; James, 91, is also a poet; Peter, 80, taught himself to play the piano and ice-skate after midlife; Millie, 93, burns through half a dozen books every few weeks ("I like exciting books with a lot of action," she says); Helen, 88, sews intricate dolls, complete with period costumes; and Peggy, the baby at 79, loves to cook and read. Even when they're watching Jeopardy!, says Peter's granddaughter Nicole, they're calling out the answers in the form of a question, of course.
If studies are going to determine how adopting such behaviors can influence and strengthen genes, they're going to need a lot of volunteers, and the LLFS, like the New England study, is ready. So far, the trial includes 840 families like the Hurlburts, with 4,800 siblings who were at least 79 when they enrolled in 2006 and many of their children. All of the participants signed on knowing they'd be sitting still for in-depth interviews, recounting family histories and providing blood and DNA samples. And all have happily done their part. "I am interested to see if their influence can carry over to our generation," says Janet Kinnally, 61, who joined the study along with her mother Helen. "I hope the research leads to things that are helpful for generations to come."
None of this means that centenarian studies will produce a youth pill for the rest of us anytime soon or ever, despite all the overblown claims made by hawkers of antiaging compounds such as human growth hormone or resveratrol, an ingredient found in red wine. The goal, at least at first, will be merely to give us back some of what we lose by living a modern which is to say, overfed, overstressed and underactive lifestyle. "One misconception of aging research is that we are looking to prevent aging," says Sinclair. "What we are hoping to do is to come up with something that will give us a lifestyle that now only centenarians enjoy."
That's an idea that certainly appeals to the Hurlburts' three dozen children, who like to believe that their parents' genes give them a leg up but aren't taking any chances. "Our lifestyles are more stressful than theirs were," says Maureen Miraglia, 62, one of Agnes' daughters. "But I am trying to change to be more like my mother. Most of my friends are talking about retiring, but I look at my mother, and I'm looking forward to my next decade and trying to figure out what I want to do." As studies of the longest-lived among us continue to reveal more secrets to living well into old age, we can hope that's a happy dilemma that more of us will have.