How Scientists Successfully Isolated 100 Year Genes

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The debate over lifestyle versus genetics and how the two may affect lifespans has raged for decades. Over time the pendulum of pro and con has swung in both directions.

Now the pendulum has swung far in favor of genetics as excited scientists have managed to isolate the long theorized 'Methuselah gene.'

Many researchers have gleaned evidence over the years of people that live well past 100 no matter their lifestyle and habits. High salt diets, sugar, lack of fruits and vegetables, even smokers have reached the century mark despite all the 'evidence' that they should not.

This led some to hypothesize that genes that promote longevity must exist. Having only one or two longevity genes is not enough to protect people from an earlier death. Having a 'suite' of protective genes, however, almost guarantees that an individual can reach the century mark and even live well past it.

These genes seem to insulate people from poor lifestyle choices such as poor dietary habits and the adverse affects of smoking. The genes also appear to shield people from many of the age-related diseases like heart disease and cancer for years—in some cases up to 30 years.

People with these genes also tend to age more slowly than the population at large. Informally, they are referred to as 'nonagenarians,' or people who don't age at the same rate as others.

Research into centenarians has revealed that the 'right' combination of protective genes that create the Methuselah effect are extremely uncommon. It's estimated that one in 10,000 carries the combination of genes that permit them to reach 100 or beyond. The right combination of genes appearing in the DNA is like being dealt a royal flush in poker.

Researcher Eline Slagboom of Leiden University leads a current, ongoing study of a group of 3,500 Dutch nonagenarians. “Long-lived people do not have fewer disease genes or aging genes,” she explains, “Instead they have other genes that stop those disease genes from being switched on. Longevity is strongly genetic and inherited.”

The physiology of nonagerians from longer living families differs significantly from the general population. These differences extend to their very genetic make-up. Slagboom's team has already published several papers revealing the unique physiology of those with the right combination of genes. A paper focusing only on the genes is due out in the near future.

Slagboom notes that “People who live to a great age metabolize fats and glucose differently, their skin ages more slowly and they have lower prevalence of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension." None of this is due to diet or lifestyle, she claims. “These factors are all under strong genetic control, so we see the same features in the children of very old people.”

Other studies have identified some of the genes that make up the mix leading to a longer lifespan. Some of the research has shown that minuscule variations or mutations in specific genes will significantly improve a person's chances of living past 100.

Environmental factors such as disease do have an impact. The increase in antibiotics and ability to combat viral infections has positively impacted the rising rate of centenarians.

Genes that come into play as far as extending the human lifespan include ADIPOQ—present in  roughly 10 percent of adolescents. Almost 30 percent of those people living past 100 carry the gene. Others, such as the ApoC3 and CETP are also present in about 10 percent of the young and 20 percent of the nonagenarians.

Professor Nir Barzilai, who headed a research team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York discovered some of those genes and linked them to nonagenarians after analysis of the genes present in more than 500 people who had attained the century benchmark. Most of their offspring also exhibited the rare gene mix.

Barzilai believes that identifying such genes will make it possible to develop pharmaceuticals with the capability to retard the aging process and the concurrent development of age-related illnesses. In essence, he envisions a Methuselah drug keeping people healthier longer while extending their normal lifespan.

Another longevity researcher, Dr. David Gems, believes that aging is just another disease. He proclaims, “If we know which genes control longevity then we can find out what proteins they make and then target them with drugs. That makes it possible to slow down aging. We need to reclassify it as a disease rather than as a benign, natural process."

Gems, from University College, London, sees a day when specific treatments will be available to slow—even stop—the aging process. “Much of the pain and suffering in the world are caused by aging. If we can find a way to reduce that, then we are morally obliged to take it.”

Such a drug, if one is developed, will be taken by people who have reached middle-age. It should be able to slow the aging process to such a degree that a 75-year old tomorrow will be as a 45-year old today.

Some of the researchers believe it will be a trillion dollar boon to the pharmaceutical industry.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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