Centenarians may have perfected the art of growing old

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published July 8, 2016

Key Takeaways

People who live to be centenarians may be healthier than those who are younger, with shorter periods of illness that may only occur just before death, according to results from a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

“Most people struggle with an ever-increasing burden of disease and disability as they age,” said lead researcher Nir Barzilai, MD, professor of medicine and of genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and director of Einstein’s Institute for Aging Research, and attending physician at Montefiore medical Center, Bronx, NY. “But we found that those who live exceptionally long lives have the additional benefit of shorter periods of illness – sometimes just weeks or months – before death.”

Dr. Barzilai and colleagues used data from two large, ongoing studies:

  • The Longevity Genes Project (LGP), comprised of healthy, independently living Ashkenazi Jewish people from the Northeast who are aged ≥ 95 years, who were compared to a group of Ashkenazi Jewish subjects with no parental history of longevity; and
  • The New England Centenarian Study (NECS), initiated in 1994, comprised of all centenarians in eight towns surrounding Boston and later including centenarians from North America, England, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, who were compared with individuals aged 58 to 95 years.

Dr. Barzilai and fellow researchers first compared health status in 483 LGP centenarians with 696 LGP subjects aged 60 to 94 years old, and then the health status of 1,498 centenarians from NECS with 302 comparison subjects aged 58 to 95 years, using a comparison of the ages at which these subjects developed five major, age-related conditions that included cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, osteoporosis, and stroke.

Surprisingly, they found that centenarians in both the LGP and NECS studies had a consistent pattern of delayed onset of illness. In addition, the incidence of serious illness in these centenarians—including all five conditions assessed—was usually for only a short time and occurred very late in life.

Researchers found a lower risk of overall morbidity in centenarians than in younger participants (NECS men: relative risk (RR)=0.12, women: RR=0.20; LGP men: RR=0.18, women: RR=0.24). In addition, they found that the age at which 20% of each centenarian group developed specific diseases was 18 to 24 years later than in the reference groups, as stratified according to sex, and despite cultural, social, and genetic differences.

And so, perhaps, Jack London was correct: “Age is never so old as youth would measure it.”

This research was funded by National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute on Aging (P01AG021654 and RO1 AG 042188-01) and the Clinical and Translational Science Awards from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (UL1 TR001073, TL1 TR001072, KL2 TR001071).

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