Dr. Thomas Perls has for decades studied the so-called super-ages, people who live into their 90s and beyond, essentially free of the typical illnesses of old age. He is convinced that the secret of this remarkable longevity is buried in the genes and transmitted from generation to generation.
But which genes harbor this power? And if researchers identify the right genes out of thousands in a person’s body, could that knowledge be used to develop drugs that mimic those genes and allow more people to live longer, healthier lives?
That’s the premise of an ambitious new trial, the SuperAgers Family Study, (superagersstudy.org) that aims to enroll 10,000 people aged 95 or older and their children.
“People think everyone would have Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses at that age, and that’s not true,” said Perls, a professor of medicine at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine in the USA. Boston University and co-investigator of the SuperAgers Family study.
“They have a history of very slow aging and they delay disability significantly with the illnesses they have,” Perls said.
The study, a collaboration between BU, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the American Federation for Research on Aging, aims to recruit people aged 95 and over, as well as those whose parents are 95 and over, and people whose in-laws are 95 or older.
The researchers will compare the traits of super-old people and their children to the traits of older adults whose parents were not super-old people. Researchers aim to identify hereditary and natural factors that protect against human aging and related diseases.
Participants are asked to provide general health information and a saliva sample using a tube that is mailed to them and returned in a postage-paid envelope to Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The researchers say the confidentiality of the samples (which will be used to extract participants’ DNA) and information will be preserved by using a unique barcode rather than participants’ names.
“The goal is to amass the largest data bank on super-ageing so that we can begin to unravel the contribution of genetics to exceptional longevity,” said Dr Sofiya Milman, director of the Institute of Human Longevity Studies for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. , and principal investigator of the study. A large database is needed, Milman said, because researchers believe longevity is linked to rare genetic variants, found in less than 5% of the population.
The data will be shared with other scientists researching healthy aging.
Among those already in Perls’ BU database from a separate ongoing study of people who live to be 100 is Francis St. Germain Sr. of Medford.
St. Germain is only 98, but his father lived to be 107. And his two brothers are 92 and 99 years old.
“I’ve had 12 kids, so I’ve been busy all my life, and that’s kept me going,” he said.
St. Germain, who was a Navy Motor Machinist’s Mate Second Class during World War II, has 31 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren — many of whom may also carry longevity genes.
Reaching 100 is unusual, but the chances of living much longer are downright rare, Perls said.
“People who live to be 100 are now one in five thousand people in the population,” he said.
Those who live to be 105 and over are one in 250,000, while those who reach 110 are like unicorns: one in five million, Perls said.
Many people who exercise regularly, eat healthily and abstain from smoking will reach their 90s, Perls said. Beyond that, the researchers think genetics plays a bigger role.
“It’s good to choose your grandparents,” he said.
St. Germain has good genes and a good life for its longevity; he starts each day with steel-cut oatmeal which he cooks at night, with fruit and orange juice, and a daily one-mile walk.
Yet research suggests that those with super longevity genes that don’t maintain such a healthy lifestyle may still be protected against cardiovascular disease and certain other conditions.
“If children of super-old people were smokers, had diabetes and were at risk for cardiovascular disease, being a child of super-old people was protective,” said Milman, who has studied the phenomenon.
The race to unlock the mysteries of longevity is wide and has deep pockets. It includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who reportedly invested billions of dollars last year to launch Altos Labs in California with the goal of developing life-extending therapies that can “restore the health and resilience of cells to reverse disease, injury and… disability”.
Longevity researcher Nicholas Schork said scientists are following two main paths in their mission to discover therapies that will slow aging. One is the path taken by Perls and Milman in their SuperAgers study, trying to decipher the genes responsible for longevity so that therapies can be developed using knowledge gained from how those genes work.
The other side turned to “reorientation”. This group of researchers is studying drugs already on the market that have shown signs of preventing diseases for which they have not yet been approved. One such study is the TAME trial, which uses metformin, a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes, which will test whether people taking metformin have delayed development or progression of chronic diseases related to age, such as heart disease, cancer and dementia.
Schork noted that there are more than 500 studies listed in the government’s database of ongoing trials aimed at unlocking the mysteries of aging.
“The belief is that if you could understand the fundamental mechanism associated with aging and slow down the rate at which people age and accumulate [cellular] damage, these internal clocks that tick throughout life, you could slow the rate of aging and you could help prevent age-related diseases,” said Schork, associate director of quantitative sciences at the Translational Genomics Research Institute. , City of Hope Medical Center.
But St. Germain, Medford’s 98-year-old great-great-grandfather, is too busy living his life to dwell on his longevity. He is due to have heart surgery in December, related to his atrial fibrillation, but doesn’t think it will slow him down. Instead, it focuses on May 2024. That’s when it hits 100.
He has already booked the Elks Lodge in Saugus for the celebration.
“I’m making plans,” he said, “to bring the whole family.”
For more information on the SuperAgers family study: [email protected]