Genes play larger role than habits in longevity for centenarians, study says

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Genes may be more likely to increase longevity than diet, exercise, smoking and drinking, new research suggests.

Investigators asked 466 Ashkenazi Jews over age 95 about their lifestyles, body mass index, and other habits around smoking, drinking, physical activity and food. The group was compared against data from 3,164 people who had been born around the same time as the centenarians and examined in the 1970s through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The study group did not have healthier habits than the comparison group, researchers said. Among long-living men, 24% consumed alcohol daily, versus 22% of the general population. Only 27% of the female centenarians attempted to eat a low-calorie diet, similar to the general population group.

"In previous studies of our centenarians, we've identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or 'good' cholesterol," said senior author Nir Barzilai, M.D., the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research and director of the Institute for Aging Research at Einstein. "This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle. 

But those who want to live a long life should not throw caution to the wind, he noted.

"Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity," Barzilai said. "We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan."