MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Thomas Perls, MD, MPH Professor
Boston University School of Medicine
Medical Research: What is the background for this study?
Dr. Perls: For years now, Gerontology scholars continue to state that 25% of what they interchangeably call aging, longevity, life expectancy and life span is genetic and 75% is due to the environment and health-related behaviors. This assertion is based on Scandinavian twins reared apart, but the oldest participants in those studies lived to their 70s and 80s. Part of the problem here is the lack of consistency in what people mean by the terms Aging, Life Span and Longevity.
In fact, the Seventh Day Adventists, who generally have a high prevalence of healthy behaviors (vegetarian, daily exercise, eat in moderation, abstain from tobacco and alcohol, and activities that help manage stress well) have an average live expectancy of approximately 88 years. Yet, 7th Day Adventists are ethnically and racially heterogeneous and thus it appears that those healthy behaviors explain the vast majority of the variation in how old these people live to be. This finding is consistent with the optimistic view of the twin studies, that much of living to one’s 80’s is in our hands. Living to only our 50s-70’s is also in our hands (e.g. 75% behaviors) if we choose to smoke, eat red meat frequently, be obese, not exercise, be exposed to gun violence, have unsafe sex, do IV drugs, etc. So it is safe to say, in my opinion, that 75% of the variation in how old we live to be, is on average due to our behavior and exposure choices. The empowering and important point is that if we all lived like the Seventh Day Adventists, average life expectancy would increase almost 8 years and health costs would markedly decline because we would be getting to these older ages because we are healthier not because we are pouring more resources into more effectively treating diseases.
The New England Centenarian Study, which I direct, and a number of other studies of nonagenarians (people in their 90s) have demonstrated via direct genetic studies as well as studies of family trees where at least some family members get to these very old ages, that with older and older ages of survival beyond age ~95 years, variations in genetic profiles explain a greater and greater proportion of the variation in how old people live to be at these ages. So much so that I believe the findings to date are consistent with the roles of genes and environment being reversed for survival to age 106+ years, that is, 75% genetics and 25% environment/behaviors. This supposition is based upon several observations:
(1) as people reach the age of 105+ years, they become more and more alike in terms of what age-related diseases they get and when they get them. Consistent with Jim Fries; “Compression of Morbidity” hypothesis, people who survive to ages 110+ (called supercentenarians) and who therefore approximate the limit of human lifespan are on average disease and disability-free up until the last 5 or so years of their lives. This increasing homogeneity, especially compared to the increasing heterogeneity in the rates of aging and incidences of age-related diseases at younger percentiles or ages of survival, suggests underlying genetic similarities (similar genetic profiles) amongst groups of these supercentenarians; and
(2) the New England Centenarian Study previously discovered genetic signatures (made up of longevity-associated variations of about 130 genes) that were associated with surviving to age 106+ years with 80% accuracy, but with only 60% accuracy for accurately picking out people living to ~100 years. This increasing accuracy with older and older ages also suggests a stronger and stronger genetic influence upon survival to these rarest percentiles of survival.
With the above background, we set out in this study and subsequent paper, to
(1) assess sibling relative risk using the largest-ever collection of validated pedigrees of centenarians,
(2) to assess the risk of a sibling achieving the same age as their very old sibling (e.g. ages 95, 100, or 105+ years) relative to average people born around the same time, and
(3) to look at how when a person was born (eg before or after 1890) made a difference in these relative risks.