New Twist on Becoming a Centenarian: It’s All in the Genes Says New Study
Einstein researchers find Centenarians just as likely as the others to smoke, drink and pack on
See video below of Dr. Barzilai explaining the unexpected results.
Aug. 3, 2011 - People who live to 95 or older are no more virtuous than the rest of us in
terms of their diet, exercise routine or smoking and drinking habits, according to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of
Yeshiva University, Bronx, N.Y.
Their findings, published today in the online edition of Journal of the American
Geriatrics Society, suggests that "nature" (in the form of protective longevity genes) may be more important than "nurture" (lifestyle
behaviors) when it comes to living an exceptionally long life.
Nir Barzilai, M.D., the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research and director of the Institute for Aging Research at
Einstein, was the senior author of the study.
Dr. Barzilai and his Einstein colleagues interviewed 477 Ashkenazi Jews who were living
independently and were 95 and older (ages 95-112, 75% of them women).
They were enrolled in
Longevity Genes Project, an ongoing study that seeks to understand why centenarians live as long as they do. (Descended from a small
founder group, Ashkenazi Jews are more genetically uniform than other populations, making it easier to spot gene differences that are
The elderly participants were asked about their lifestyles at age 70, considered
representative of the lifestyle they'd followed for most of their adult lives. They answered questions about their weight and height so that
their body mass index (BMI) could be calculated. They also provided information about their alcohol consumption, smoking habits, physical
activity, and whether they ate a low-calorie, low-fat or low-salt diet.
To compare these long-lived individuals with the general population, the researchers used
data from 3,164 people who had been born around the same time as the centenarians and were examined between 1971 and 1975 while participating
in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison
group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet.
For example, 27 percent of the elderly women and an equal percentage of women in the general
population attempted to eat a low-calorie diet.
Among long-living men, 24 percent consumed alcohol daily, compared with 22 percent of the
general population. And only 43 percent of male centenarians reported engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity, compared with 57
percent of men in the comparison group.
"In previous studies of our centenarians, we've identified gene variants that exert
particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or 'good' cholesterol," said Dr. Barzilai, who is also
professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein. "This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to
buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle."
The research did find, however, that overweight centenarians tended to have lower rates of obesity than the control
group. Although male and female centenarians were just as likely to be overweight as their counterparts in the general population, the
centenarians were significantly less likely to become obese:
● only 4.5 percent of male centenarians were obese vs. 12.1 percent of controls; and
● for women, 9.6 percent of centenarians were obese versus 16.2 percent of controls.
Both of these differences are statistically significant.
While longevity genes may protect centenarians from bad habits, healthy lifestyle choices remain critical for the vast
majority of the population. The
U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were nearly 425,000 people aged 95 and older living in the U.S. in 2010 − a fraction (.01) of the 40
million U.S. adults 65 and over.
"Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are
not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity," said Dr. Barzilai.
"We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great
health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan."
Researchers also asked study participants why they believed they had lived so long. Most did not attribute their advanced
age to lifestyle factors.
One-third reported a history of family longevity, while 20 percent believed that physical activity also played a role in
Other factors included positive attitude (19 percent), busy or active life (12 percent), less smoking and drinking (15
percent), good luck (8 percent), and religion or spirituality (6 percent).
Einstein College of Medicine
Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University is one of the nation's premier centers for research, medical education and clinical
investigation. In 2010, Einstein received nearly $200 million in support from the NIH for major
research centers at Einstein in diabetes, cancer, liver disease, and AIDS, as well as other areas. Through its extensive affiliation
network with five medical centers, Einstein runs one of the largest post-graduate medical training programs in the United States, offering
approximately 150 residency programs to more than 2,500 physicians in training. For more information, please visit