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On 100-year-old salamanders–and People

26 Jul

Two very interesting aging-related news items came across my desk this week. The first is a blog entry in Science on the discovery of a type of cave-dwelling salamander that lives to be 100. It’s called an olm, it’s about 15 grams, and it lives in caves throughout Europe.

Why does it live so long? Scientists are stumped. It has no natural predators, which helps, but it lacks some of the traits that other long-lived animals have. For example, it doesn’t have the naturally protective benefits of being large (like an elephant) or of having a low metabolic rate. It’s not immune to oxidative stress, which is thought to contribute to aging. The scientists plan to study the olm, in the hopes of unlocking the secrets to extreme aging.

Meanwhile a gerontologist named Robert Young, who works for Guinness World Records, has made it his job to track people who live to 100 and beyond. According to his records, the oldest living human is Eugenie Blanchard of the French territory of Saint Barthelemy. (WSJ subscription may be required to read more.)

Surprisingly, the number of centenarians has grown 32% in the past five years, while the number of “super-centenarians”–those who live to 110–has stayed flat. No one is quite sure why that is. But perhaps the salamander will someday provide clues into how the rest of us can achieve the rare milestone of 100-plus.

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Posted in Science of Aging


Scientists Discover Genetic Cues for Longevity: Let the Hype Begin!

01 Jul

Today the prestigious journal Science released a paper identifying genetic factors that can predict–with 77 percent accuracy–who will live an exceptionally long life. Not surprisingly, the study garnered a ton of interest: I Googled it about 15 minutes after it was released and found a dozen or so articles already zooming across the Internet, disseminated by a number of major news outlets.

The research is tantalizing, to say the least. A team of scientists at Boston University discovered 150 genetic variants known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that they believe can predict who will survive into their late 90s and beyond. They also discovered 19 clusters of genes that seem to correlate with the onset and prevalence of age-related diseases such as dementia. This is the type of news anti-aging proponents drool over: It raises the possibility of developing products that can be used to predict age-related diseases long before they strike, and to sell drugs and other products that purport to prevent such illnesses.

The scientists responsible for this discovery are in no way encouraging such commerce. During a call with reporters, lead researcher and geriatrician Thomas Perls said it would be conceivable to “produce a chip that would help predict people’s genetic predisposition for exceptional longevity.” But he was quick to add a caveat: “All the authors of this paper want to instill a great deal of caution in thinking about what people might actually do with that information. Will that stop companies from going ahead and doing this? Probably not.”

Perls is well familiar with the lengths the anti-aging industry will take to sell youth. He has been an outspoken opponent of the anti-aging industry’s use of human growth hormone, much to the chagrin of the industry. He’s a pivotal character in my book, and an often-quoted expert on what doesn’t work when it comes to staving off old age. He should know: He is the director of BU’s New England Centenarian Study–an ongoing project involving 1,600 people over the age of 100.

In fact, much of the data behind this discovery came from the Centenarian Study, which began in 1995. Perls and his colleagues already knew that 90% of centenarians were still exceptionally healthy at the average age of 93. “So they very much compress their diseases or disabilities towards the very end of their lives,” he said. The team screened 300,000 SNPs across the genome in order to identify the ones most pivotal to longevity.

Still, science isn’t anywhere near being able to predict how long any of us will live. And there are so many factors beyond our genetic destiny that come into play. Perls himself said it best: “I think that we’re quite a ways away still in understanding what pathways governed by these genes are involved and how the integration of these genes–not just with themselves but with environmental factors–are all playing a role in this longevity puzzle.”

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Posted in Science of Aging