People who live to 95 and beyond may not have better health habits than the rest of us, according to a new study that shows many nonagenarians drink, smoke and don't get regular exercise. The findings suggest that exceptional longevity is based more on genetic factors than lifestyle choices.
Researchers at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein School of Medicine examined 477 Ashkenazi Jews (a genetically homogenous group), age 95 to 109, looking for factors that may have contributed to their longevity. They then compared the data gathered from the centenarian group to a sample of more than 3,000 people who died younger and had participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Those people answered questions about their lifestyle when they were approximately 70 years old.
Researchers found that the average body mass index (BMI) was similar among the two groups, as were the proportions of overweight and obese individuals. Overall smoking was slightly higher in the non-centenarian group, but researchers found that 60 percent of the long-living men had smoked in their lifetime. The proportion of individuals who consumed alcohol daily among both sexes was also similar, and the centenarians reported engaging less often in regular, moderate exercise than their counterparts who lived shorter lives.
"My population is as bad as every population," summarized Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the ongoing Longevity Gene Project and the paper's lead author. "They haven't listened to the doctor either."
Barzilai argues the study provides further proof of the key function of so-called longevity genes when it comes to determining who lives to 100 and who does not.
Barzilai pointed to the protein CETP as one such gene, explaining that it helps control HDL, or good cholesterol, and seems to protect people against certain health problems that occur with age, including cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's. Research is ongoing to develop drugs that would mimic such gene mutations, as a prevention effort against the diseases of aging.
In the meantime, Barzilai expressed fear that the current findings would be misunderstood, cautioning that people should not see this as a license to drink, smoke, gain weight and still live a long, healthy life.
He recounted how -- after he appeared in an interview discussing a 107-year-old woman who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 95 years -- he was stopped by a man who told him the interview had changed his life.
"He said, 'I was at the gym, I saw the interview and I realized my grandmother is 102.' And he said he's not going to the gym anymore," Barzilai told the HuffPost. "I thought, no, no! If you have longevity in your family, you have a higher [chance] of longevity yourself, because it is highly inheritable. But you don't know if you inherited it."
Winifred Rossi, deputy director of the Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology Program at the National Institute on Aging echoed Barzilai's sentiment, saying the new report -- published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society -- was not an invitation for people to "give it all up." (The study received support from the National Institutes of Health.)
"We're making progress in understanding how really long-lived people differ and don't differ from the general population," Rossi said. "But it is extremely complex. We don't understand what it is that is contributing to longevity. It could be something genetic interacting with something else genetic. It could be genetic and lifestyle factors interacting. It probably is a little bit of all of that."