How To Live To Be 100

New research suggests that a long life is no accident. So what are the secrets of the world's centenarians?

  • August 30, 2004 TIME Cover: How to Live To Be 100 (And Not Regret It)

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    Indeed, despite what the Swedish and Adventist studies suggest, there's evidence that in some families, at least, genes exert pretty powerful effects on life-span. The centenarians registered in the New England Centenarian Study, for example, showed no consistent patterns in diet, exercise or healthy habits that could explain their extended years. About 20% had smoked at some point in their lives, and some had eating habits that should have made them obese or unhealthy but somehow did not. At least 10% to 15% had a history of heart disease, stroke or diabetes for more than 20 years. Something in that group's genes was protecting them from succumbing to diseases that had felled the average American decades earlier. "These people still get to 100," says Perls. "They seem to have a functional reserve or adaptive capacity that allows them to get disease but not necessarily suffer from it. The key seems to be resilience."

    Some of that resilience may be linked to human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, a group clustered on chromosome 6 that affects vulnerability to such autoimmune diseases as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Centenarians living in Okinawa, for example, have variants of HLA that tend to protect against those diseases. Perls has found a region on chromosome 4 that centenarians and their siblings and children in the U.S. seem to have in common and that sets them apart from shorter-lived individuals. The finding has not yet been replicated by other groups, but Perls expects to publish a paper in the next month detailing his results.

    What exactly that stretch of DNA does remains to be discovered, but it may be a key not just to long life but also to the resilience found among U.S. centenarian-study participants, with their 20% smoking rate and imperfect eating habits. That group may be especially genetically blessed, and researchers are eager to tap its secrets.

    We certainly need them. For as medical science adds years to our collective lives, we chip away at them by doing things — stewing at our desk jobs, eating fatty processed foods, blowing a gasket in a freeway traffic jam, exercising no more than our fingers at the computer — that centenarians can't imagine. Most of them were born into an America as remote from today's metaphorically as the craggy villages of Sardinia, Okinawa and Nova Scotia are geographically. In the early 1900s people walked miles to work not by choice but out of necessity; cars were still a luxury. People tilled the fields because their farmer parents needed cheap help. People ate what they grew because it was there. Most labor was manual then, and most nutrients were natural. Preserved food was what Aunt Maud sealed in a jar. Tobacco and alcohol were available, but most of today's centenarians didn't indulge to excess.

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