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Living to Be 100: Is It in Your Genes?

By Chris Iliades, MD

At the end of the 20th century there were more than 50,000 Americans 100 years old or older. According to the Census Bureau, Americans over age 85 are the fastest growing segment of the older population. An article published in the medical journal The Lancet predicts that if current trends in longevity continue, half of the babies born in America today can expect to live to be 104.

"During the 1990s, the most rapid growth of the older population occurred in the oldest age groups. The population 85 years and older increased by 38 percent." —The US Census Bureau

Living to be over 100 years old requires good habits and good luck, but most of all it may require good genes. That’s what a group of researchers from the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine and the Boston Medical Center found in a study just published in the journal Science. They studied the genes of over 1,000 centenarians and were able to identify a cluster of genes that they say can predict longevity with 77 percent accuracy.

What Does It Mean To Have The Longevity Genes?

Having genes for longevity doesn’t automatically mean you will live to be over 100, but it does increase your chances of a long life. Scientists who study longevity have known for a long time that there are certain people who have the ability to live longer and to live with greater vitality in old age than normal.

"Notably, the team found that 45 percent of the oldest centenarians—those 110 years and older—had a genetic signature with the highest proportion of longevity-associated genetic variants." —ScienceDaily

Improvements in infant mortality, diet, a healthier lifestyle, better environment and better medical care have gotten most of us into a life expectancy of about 85 years, but people who live
much longer than that are different. The oldest person alive today is 116 and the oldest person ever was 122. What the new research shows is that kind of jump in life expectancy is probably due to genes. The gene cluster or "gene signature" for longevity was present in 90 percent of the centenarians studied.

Do We Really Want to Know?

If you could go to the store and buy a test to tell you if you have the longevity genes, would you want to know? That possibility is not farfetched. Some genetic testing kits are already available online and Wal-Mart has announced that it plans to start selling personal genetic testing kits.

If you knew who had the longevity genes, how would it affect your insurance coverage, marriage decisions and retirement plans? Would you be more likely to get a heart transplant if you could prove you might live longer? Could you sell your sperm or eggs to the highest bidder? Would you choose a mate who also had longevity genes?

Even without knowing who has the longevity genes, as we all grow older, society needs to start thinking about how our increasing longevity will affect health care costs, insurance rates, retirement age, our work forc, and any number of other effects that we can’t yet predict.

Personalized Genomics And Predictive Medicine

Genomics is the study of genes and it may eventually tell us how many people have the longevity genes, if the genes can protect us from diseases like cancer and dementia and if the genes can be used to make us all live longer and healthier lives. What we do with that longer and healthier life is something we as individuals and as a society need to start thinking about. It may be that what we gain from the wisdom that goes along with longevity will help us make the right decisions.