Amazing Things

A Long Life Is Genetically Different From A Healthy One

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They’ve made it far in life, 80 years and counting. Yet they’re conspicuously free of the afflictions that often crop up in old age: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia. They are a rare breed, the “Wellderly.”

That’s the name researchers have given a group of older adults who could unlock the genetic secrets not just to a long life, but a healthy one.

“Longevity is somewhat man-made because you can now do so much for a person — you can put them on life support and live forever,” Eric Topol, who oversees the Wellderly study as director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California, told BuzzFeed News. “Short of that, you can certainly treat cancers and heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases, and keep people alive but not healthy.”

What his team wants to understand is why some elderly people have managed to avoid developing any chronic conditions. “For all these years of genomics, we’ve been focusing on diseases,” Topol said. “There just hasn’t been enough work on the health span” — that is, the number of years a person maintains good health.

The first study out of the Wellderly project, published on Thursday in the journal Cell, suggests that healthy aging and longevity, while related, also have distinct genetic differences.

The Scripps researchers found that more than 500 Wellderly group members had significantly lower genetic risks for Alzheimer’s and heart disease, compared to a control group of younger adults. A handful of the Wellderly group also possessed rare genetic variants that the scientists suspect help protect against cognitive decline.

Although the research team stopped short of crediting these genetic differences as the direct causes for healthy aging, they said their findings highlight the need for follow-up study into why these differences exist and what role, exactly, they play in healthy aging. To that end, they have made their data available online.

Independent scientists are intrigued by the findings, but caution that they are preliminary.

“The study is certainly interesting and suggests there may be a key difference between healthy aging and exceptional longevity,” Brian Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, told BuzzFeed News. “But we certainly need to replicate the study and get more information.”

Irenise Moulonguet in 2012, when she was 111 years old and France’s oldest citizen. Afp / AFP / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

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About Barry G. Morris

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