One hundred year-old Maureen Paldo still lives in the same Chicago home that she and her husband purchased when they married after World War II. Paldo, who’s been widowed for about 30 years, says she still manages the stairs, takes walks as often as possible, and loves to have people come to visit.
Her one regret is that she can no longer drive due to poor eyesight, so every Sunday, her son takes her to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts—only for the coffee, she insists—where she meets up with a group of friends to socialize.
Paldo is a superager—those 80 or older who are mentally and physically more akin to people decades younger. Former President Jimmy Carter, model and actress Iris Apfel, and producer Norman Lear are also superagers. You may know some yourself. But why them, and not others? While, superagers can run in families, it can also be pretty random. One sibling may live a long, healthy life while another may die prematurely from disease. We only inherit 50% of our genes from each parent, so even in families with older, healthy relatives, superager genes are not a sure thing.
Paldo is participating in a a large, genetic study of elders, called the SuperAgers Study, to help researchers answer some key questions about life span and health span. It may even lead to a longevity pill that could help more of us live healthier, longer lives.
We still don’t really know why some people live well into their ninth or tenth decades of life with few physical or cognitive problems, while others show decline much sooner. While genetics plays a role, we are still learning about all of protective inherited and natural factors, according to Dr. Sofiya Milman, the study’s chief investigator and Director of Human Longevity Studies at the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. SuperAgers all seem to have the APoE2 gene variant in common, which protects against Alzheimer’s or dementia, but that’s only a partial explanation.
In one analysis, Milman’s team compared the lifestyle of centenarians to the lifestyle of a general population group from the same birth years. Those in the general population group didn’t live as long, despite similar rates of tobacco and alcohol use, diet, and exercise.
“What is it that makes the difference?” she asks. “We know enough to know that this is a very valuable group to study because looking at smaller groups of superagers and centenarians have indicated that there’s definitely heritability for healthy aging and healthy longevity.”
Health span, not life span
But, It’s not just about life span, it’s also about health span—living out the later years with few, if any medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes. “If people are healthy and independent and cognitively intact at 90, I think that’s a pretty major success,” Milman says. “We hope to use this information to actually create therapies based on this biological knowledge.”
For those who did not win the genetic lottery, it may be possible some day to benefit from therapeutics that will be based on these genetic studies. The ultimate goal, says Milman, is to create therapies that will mimic the beneficial function of these longevity genes and benefit everyone, not just a selected few.
Milman likens these therapies to those which modulate the biology of people predisposed to high blood pressure or diabetes.
“Some people age slower because their pathways are more fine-tuned, and there are those who age faster because they’ve inherited pathways that are not as beneficial for aging,” she says. Manipulating those biological pathways through drugs, as we do for other age-related diseases, is plausible and biologically and scientifically sound.
The data from this study will be used to create a large biorepository for future researchers who want to study healthy aging. Researchers are not looking to help people live forever, or manipulate peoples’ genes, but to lower their risk for developing age-related diseases.
Paldo hopes that her participation in the SuperAger study will help scientists achieve this goal. She attributes her own longevity to both “good genes” and a healthy lifestyle. Growing up during the Depression, she and her siblings subsisted on mostly home-grown vegetables and fruit.
“I think my secret is hard work. And healthy diet,” she says. However, longevity didn’t benefit all of her siblings. One sister lived until age 103, but two others died in their 40s from cancer. Paldo has lost touch with several brothers, and is unaware of their fates.
“I hope they find out something that contributes a long life, Paldo says. “I mean, I didn’t do anything different. I just went along with the program and just tried to be happy.“
We’ve long known that Paldo’s approach—eating right, exercising, and socializing—are key factors in staying healthy. Life span isn’t just about longevity, but about healthy longevity. “It’s not about living until 120 and having dementia for 40 years. Ultimately, we’re looking for ways to prevent these diseases from onsetting all together,” Milman says.
To really relieve the burden on our society and on our healthcare system, we need to get at the root of these age-related problems. Many have a common cause, which is aging itself, so it’s really important for us to fight the misinformation that’s out there, according to Milman.
She cites ads for supplements that claim to help people live longer or prevent memory loss. Many have never been tested in the kind of clinical trial which proves that this drug or this supplement will actually work. “We really need to look for scientifically based evidence. And for most of these things, it just doesn’t exist yet,” she says.
The research team hopes to enroll 10,000 individuals in the study within the two years. Data will be protected and only qualified researchers will have access to it. If you’d like to learn more about the study, you can get screened through the website, whether or not you have a family history of longevity.