Living to 100 may hinge on having special genes that balance out the harmful effects of other, “bad” genes, researchers say. Their discovery could lead to the development of medications aimed at protecting people from disease-causing genes, they believe.

Study subjects who lived to 100 were found to have an equal or greater number of disease-related gene variants as younger people studied by scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City. Researchers, however, were able to identify a particular gene that acted to buffer the harmful effects of a disease-causing gene in the oldest study subjects.

Only one person in 10,000 people currently lives to be 100, researchers noted. They expressed hope that further research could lead to the development of drugs that mimic the action of the longevity gene. This also could lead to better protection against cardiovascular disease and other age-related diseases, they said.

The study report will be published in Friday’s issue of PLoS Computational Biology.