Article Archive
Summer 2011

The Search for Secrets of Longevity

By Leonard W. Poon, PhD, DrPhil, hc
Aging Well
Vol. 4 No. 3 P. 34

As a centenarian researcher for the past 20-plus years, I have been bombarded by the media with questions about the secrets of longevity. Frequently, the questions focus on what one or two things people can do to increase their life span.

A July 2, 2010, article in the Los Angeles Times featured the headline “Longevity — It’s in Your Genes.” The article described a study, highlighted in the journal Science, by Boston University researchers who had performed a genomewide association study of more than 1,000 centenarians and found genetic markers that could predict longevity with 77% accuracy.

The excitement generated by the findings was reported in most major newspapers and magazines as well as on television talk shows. The major thrust of the excitement was threefold. First, a gene (or a series of genes) may be a deciding factor for long life, at least for some people. Second, given the practice of healthy habits, those who possess the longevity genes may have the extra “boost” to live to an exceptional age rather than simply an average one. Finally, the findings reportedly held the secrets for treating or preventing many age-related diseases, and the study investigator noted ultimately that a pill could be discovered to lengthen life.

The search for the secrets of longevity has captured the imagination of scientists and laypersons alike from the discovery of the Fountain of Youth by Ponce de León to James Hilton’s Shangri-La. Scientific studies of longevity and long-lived individuals have advanced significantly around the world in the last 25 years, with newsworthy findings from Boston University on genetic contributions, the Okinawa Centenarian Study on dietary contributions, and the Georgia Centenarian Study on lifestyle and psychosocial contributions, to name just a few. These findings from different studies around the world point out that contributors to longevity depend on both nature (heredity and genetics) and nurture (lifestyle and environment). These combinations of contributors are complex, multidimensional, and interactive, and importantly, no single factor ultimately impacts longevity.

It is interesting to note that available evidence from these studies shows that environmental influences could account for a larger portion of the reasons for longevity. For example, a study of 600 Danish twins reported in 1993 showed that genetics could account for no more than 30% of the factors for longevity. This would be good news for those individuals who may be lucky enough to inherit these genes. However, it is reassuring that everyone can actively attempt to prolong life by paying attention to lifestyle and environmental practices. While it may be newsworthy that there exists a possibility of inventing a pill for longevity, it can’t be emphasized enough that the formula for longevity is already within our grasp, albeit a more difficult road to travel in everyday lifestyle practices.

To illustrate that it is not easy for nature to reveal the secrets of longevity, the July 1, 2010, paper reported in Science was retracted on November 12, 2010, owing to problems in quality control steps that might have reported false-positives in the results. Regardless of the accuracy of the findings, it is important to put into perspective that people need to think about longevity from a holistic perspective and keep in mind that no single factor contributes to longevity. I personally am elated that no single or predetermined factor can account for longevity, and everyone can have a chance for a long and happy life.

— Leonard W. Poon, PhD, DrPhil, hc, the University of Georgia Distinguished Research Professor, is director of the Institute of Gerontology and the Georgia Geriatric Education Center. He is the principal investigator of the Georgia Centenarian Study, a study of longevity and successful adaptation of the oldest old. His latest book, Understanding the Well-Being of the Oldest Old, focuses on collaborations among American and Israeli scientists on successful aging and survival.