Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lessons on Longevity

Our caregiver support groups have been discussing a recent Time magazine cover story on longevity and lessons we all could learn from centenarians.

For many of us, chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and dementia can capture and ultimately cut off our later years, but researchers are discovering that those who continue to live vigorously well into their 90s and 100s have some common traits. A New England study of 850 near-centenarians found the majority of participants were:

• Non-smokers
• Extroverted
• Easy-going
• Lean in weight

These same researchers looked through data for clues to centenarians’ exceptional resilience.

From the evidence gathered so far, it appears that for the most part, people who live to 100 and beyond do not necessarily avoid the chronic diseases of aging that normally claim the rest of us after midlife. About 40% of centenarians have experienced one of these illnesses in their lifetimes, but they seem to push through them without long-term problems or complications. And when they do get sick, according to a study conducted in 1996, they are less likely to log time in the intensive-care unit (ICU) and often require less-expensive care per admission — at least compared with the cardiac surgery, chemotherapy and other ICU procedures that many of their younger elderly counterparts need.

The article goes on to discuss other studies done specifically on the brain to identify ways to prevent or slow degenerative diseases, such as those that affect our families at Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers.

As the brain ages, it weathers a constant onslaught from these destructive oxygen ions. The body is able to patch over tiny dings and cuts in the genome, but over time, the genetic fixers can no longer keep up, and the function of the gene is compromised. The balance between wear and repair may be the key to a healthily aging brain. By scanning the genomes of centenarians, Yankner hopes to isolate the genes — and the biological processes attached to them — that help them stay ahead of the damage. Those might then be harnessed to give noncentenarians the same edge.

That work might also begin to explain the growing body of evidence behind the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis, which suggests that people can improve their odds of remaining mentally alert by keeping their minds engaged. Learning a new language, picking up a hobby and maintaining a rich network of social connections are all ways to keep brain neurons firing.