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Scientists search for the key to long life

January 21, 2007|Dennis O'Brien | The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Lois Vaught has a sweet smile, a soft voice and an aversion to hearing aids. Although she's deaf, she will not use one.

When you're 104, you can decide these things for yourself.

"My husband had a hearing aid, but it wasn't satisfactory. It never worked right," says the oldest resident of the Friends Nursing Home in Sandy Spring, Md.

Hearing aside, Vaught is alert, reads a newspaper daily and responds to written questions. She also has a background that increases her odds of living into the triple digits.

That's why she's among a growing number of centenarians whose lives are being studied by scientists to sort out the mysterious combination of behavior and genetics that determine why some people live so long.

Vaught's parents lived into their 90s. She was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, taught school and married a Quaker. She and her late husband never drank alcohol or smoked. She has maintained the right attitude and diet.

"Before it became popular, she was into healthy cooking. There was never anything fried," said her only daughter, Ann Larson, who lives near Chicago. "Second, she's very serene. She doesn't have huge mood swings or get stressed."

Researchers look for patterns like these in their quest to understand the genetic and molecular underpinnings of aging.

"The holy grail in the field is finding longevity genes, genes that slow down the rate of aging and reduce susceptibility to age-related diseases," said Dr. Thomas Perls, a physician at Boston University Medical Center who enrolled Vaught in his New England Centenarian Study four years ago.

Perls is seeking volunteers for another five-year, $18-million study -- funded by the National Institute on Aging -- that looks for common genetic traits and health habits in families with more than two members who have reached 90. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University and the University of Southern Denmark also are participating in the study, Perls said.

Perls and other experts are stumped as to why some people who don't work at it lead long lives. For every clean-living Lois Vaught, there's a Jeanne Louise Calment.

Calment was a Frenchwoman who, by all accounts, smoked until a few years before her death -- and only stopped then because she could no longer light her cigarettes. When she died in 1997, at age 122, she was the oldest person whose age had been reliably documented.

"The lifestyles of these people are all across the board," said S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

People may extend their lives with exercise, a healthy diet, routine health checkups and medications. But living longer than a century requires some genetics in your favor, experts say.

"To make it past 100, you have to have been born having already won the genetic lottery," Olshansky said.

Advances in this research come in increments. In mid-December, Dutch scientists reported a key genetic link in the process -- evidence that the ability to repair the kind of DNA damage that routinely occurs in our cells plays a critical role in how rapidly we age.

Mice genetically designed to lack a crucial DNA repair gene not only aged more quickly than normal mice, but also showed the same symptoms as a 15-year-old child suffering from progeria, a rare genetic disorder that rapidly ages children and shortens their lives.

The goal of the study, written up in Nature and two journals published by the Public Library of Science, was to examine what happens at the cellular level when we age, the authors say.

"First of all, we're trying to understand the aging process. Second, we'd like to help in the development of compounds to treat these patients," said study senior author Jan H.J. Hoeijmakers, head of the department of genetics at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands.

But reliable anti-aging therapies are still years away, many experts agree.

"We're still down to diet and exercise," said Dr. S. Mitchell Harman, a former Johns Hopkins researcher who is now director and president of the Kronos Longevity Research Institute, which investigates aging and age-related illnesses.

Experts are unsure whether the average U.S. life expectancy will continue to rise. Overall life expectancy at birth is now about 78 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Of 37 industrialized countries that report life expectancy rates to international health groups, U.S. women and men ranked 26th, according to the center.

Few experts see our life span climbing as fast as it has since 1900, when it was 47 years. Scientists usually attribute the large increase during the 20th century to improved medical care, as well as public health initiatives that cut infant and childhood mortality, such as immunization programs and improved water and sewer systems.

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