What is it about centenarians that gives them the gift of extraordinarily long lives? On Nov. 1, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York launched a website, www.superagers.com, which tracks one scientist's decade-long quest to answer that question. Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the college's Institute for Aging Research, has been studying 500 Ashkenazi Jews age 95 and older, along with 700 of their children. He's trying to uncover the genes that promote long life -- discoveries that he hopes will lead to drugs to prevent age-related diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Barzilai's research could take decades to bear fruit. But there are a few useful tips for healthy aging that you can glean from watching the videos on the site, which feature centenarians who are enrolled in the study. (See preview below.) I watched them all. Then I got some perspective from Barzilai. Here's what I learned from the Super Agers:
Moderate exercise works wonders. A lot of people roll their eyes when their doctor tells them to exercise and eat right. But I think these videos tell a compelling story. Witness Lilly Port, age 96. She lifts weights, rides a stationary bike, walks on a treadmill, and swears off fatty desserts. She refuses to move out of her home, where she climbs the stairs 65 times a day.
Barzilai believes his super agers were born with a genetic code that got them long past 80, but that living a healthy life is important for everyone -- regardless of whether they have those magic genes. "If you want to get above 80, you have to not smoke, you have to exercise, and you have to watch your diet," Barzilai says.
Exercise your mind, too. You don't see many easy chairs and remote controls in the videos of Barzilai's centenarians. These people are constantly on the go--traveling, visiting their grandkids, even working. At age 104, Irving Kahn was still working five days a week as an investment advisor. "I enjoy debating with him about business subjects," his son says in the video. (Incredibly, Kahn also had a 108-year-old sister.)
Numerous studies have demonstrated that mental stimulation helps delay the cognitive decline that typically accompanies old age. In March, for example, neurobiologists at the University of California at Irvine showed that learning preserves signals in the brain, which in turn preserves memory.
Watch your cholesterol. OK, this one is related to exercising and eating right. But it deserves some emphasis. Many of the people in Barzilai's study have high levels of HDL, otherwise known as the good cholesterol. Many of them also have the cholesterol ester transfer protein gene (CETP), which has been shown to lower the risk of both cardiovascular and Alzheimer's disease.
The drug industry has tried to mimic the positive effects of this gene, but with mixed results. Pfizer had to pull the plug on its CETP drug in 2006 because of safety concerns. Merck is still working on a CETP drug -- one that Barzilai hopes will find more success. "This is an example of something that's totally translational" to medicine, he asserts.
Maybe so, but it will be years before we'll know if the Merck drug works. So what can you do in the meantime to raise your good cholesterol? Exercise is one of the few activities that has been shown to raise HDL.
Barzilai says it's unclear whether the ability to live to 100 is equally attributable to lifestyle as it is to being dealt a good genetic hand. That's why he included the centenarian's children in his study. "We have some obese centenarians, we have a woman who's been smoking for 95 years," he says. Because the younger generations are more likely to eschew those unhealthy habits, studying them could provide some insight into the role of lifestyle in aging, Barzilai explains. "We want to see what happens when they interact with their environment in ways we recommend."
As for me, I'm inspired by the video of 96-year-old Port, walking the treadmill in her purple, velour sweatsuit. "You have to be active," she says. Good advice from someone who's truly qualified to advise us all on how to age well.