What's the secret of people who live vibrant, healthy lives well beyond the age of 100?
Low levels of inflammation -- the long-term overactivation of the immune response -- may be the answer, suggests a new study of centenarians from researchers in England and Japan. People with lower markers of chronic inflammation also tend to be less likely to develop diseases, meaning suppressing inflammation could be the No. 1 key to not only living longer but to staying healthy longer.
"Centenarians and supercentenarians are different -- put simply, they age slower," Dr. Thomas von Zglinicki, a cellular gerontologist at Newcastle University and the study's lead author, said in a written statement. "They can ward off diseases for much longer than the general population."
Dr. Cheri Gostic, a geriatric specialist at Stony Brook University who has studied the effects of physical activity on inflammation, said the findings, which were published online last week in the journal EBioMedicine, weren't entirely surprising.
"Research has demonstrated that chronic systemic inflammation is a key factor in the development of many common chronic diseases, including ... heart attacks, peripheral vascular disease and most strokes," Gostic told The Huffington Post. "Old age does not cause death; disease does. If one can minimize inflammation in the body and reduce the risk or progression of disease, then it makes sense that individuals have a better chance to live longer."
In addition to low levels of inflammation, healthy centenarians and supercentenarians (people over 110 years old) also had longer telomeres, which are the caps on the end of DNA strands that protect the chromosomes from aging and poor health.
Telomere length has generally been thought to be the strongest predictor of how healthy someone will be in their old age. However, the researchers found that once a person reaches 100, inflammation levels rather than telomere length better predict successful aging and cognitive ability.
The Inflammation Factor
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 1,500 adults between the ages of 50 and 115 years old, including 684centenarians or supercentenarians and 167 children of centenarians. They measured for various health markers thought to contribute to aging, including metabolism, blood cell count, telomere length, inflammation, and liver and kidney function.
Here are some of the key findings:
- Even when they were well into their 80s and beyond, the children of centenarians (who are likely to become centenarians themselves) maintained telomeres more typical of a 60-year-old.
- Centenarians with the lowest levels of markers for chronic inflammation were able to maintain good cognition and independence for the longest periods of time. Those with less inflammation also experienced the greatest longevity.
- Inflammation was a stronger predictor of cognitive capacity in semi-supercentenarians (those who lived to be 105) than gender or biological age.
"This indicates that someone who will (probably) become a centenarian is able to keep inflammation down for longer," von Zglinicki told HuffPost.
Scientists have long known that inflammation plays some role in disease and aging, and a study on mice found that inflammation can even accelerate the aging process. The new findings provide further evidence that chronic inflammation may be the most important factor determining how quickly or slowly we age.
Making It To 100
Reaching a better scientific understanding of how centenarians achieve such extreme longevity -- and how inflammation factors into the aging process -- may help the rest of us to live longer and healthier.
Hoping to join the 100 club? Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle is a good place to start. Eating a diet of whole foods, exercising and cultivating positive emotions -- not to mention avoiding excessive consumption of sugar and processed foods, stress and sleep deprivation -- can keep chronic inflammation at bay.
"Control inflammatory status regularly and keep it down," von Zglinicki advised. "This should slow down the aging process and thus might postpone onset of multiple age-related diseases, potentially including dementia."
While current anti-inflammatory drugs are not safe for long-term use because of their side effects, the findings may open up avenues for research devising safer anti-inflammatory drugs to improve quality of life among older people.