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Study: Genetics Contribute to Living Over 105 Years

Older adult celebrating 100th birthday.

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Key Takeaways

  • Researchers found that people who live beyond 105 years tend to have a unique genetic background that makes their bodies more efficient at repairing DNA.
  • Genes are constantly interacting with a person's environment, so these results from Italy may not be generalizable to other populations.
  • Healthy aging can be promoted through everyday routines and behaviors, regardless of genetic background.

We know that humans can live well beyond 100 years. Some, called supercentenarians, go on to live more than 110. How do they do it? New research suggests it may be in their genes.

Collaborating researchers from Italy and Switzerland found that people who live beyond 105 years tend to have a genetic background that makes their bodies better at repairing DNA.

Scientists have long since studied the genetic link for longevity. They previously found if you have a semi-supercentenarian sibling (surviving to 105+), you're 35 times more likely to live as long compared to the rest of the population.

"Everybody wants the pill, the juice, the drug that provides anti-aging and longevity," lead study author Paolo Garagnani, PhD, expert in genomics and epigenomics and professor at the University of Bologna, tells Verywell. "But from our European point of view, we'll never get something like this because, on the whole, aging is a complex trait. The number of factors that interact to eventually get this phenotype is a huge number."

This research is the first time that scientists decode semi- and supercentenarians' genomes—all the genetic material inside the body—in such detail. The study was published in early May in the journal eLife.

Which Genes Were Related to Longevity?

Researchers recruited and drew blood samples from 81 people aged 105 or more from all around Italy. They then compared their DNA with that of 36 healthy people matched from the same regions who were, on average, 68 years old.

Even though a sample of 81 participants seems small and limits the research, Garagnani says, it's still important to recognize that the study involved analysis of millions of genetic variants. "We were able to study on the whole 17 million genetic variants," he says. "So the scanning of the genome was really accurate."

From these tests, researchers found that in the older age groups, five genetic changes between two genes called COA1 and STK17A were more common than in the younger group.

The study authors also cross-checked genetic data from a past study that analyzed the DNA of Italian people of similar ages. In this data, they found the same COA1 and STK17A variants in people over 100.

Data predicts that these genetic variabilities probably modify the expression of three different genes. The most commonly-seen genetic change was linked to increased activity of the STK17A gene in certain tissues. This gene is thought to contribute to cell health. It can coordinate the cell’s response to DNA damage and encourage damaged cells to undergo programmed cell death.

Researchers also noticed decreased activity of the COA1 gene in some tissues. COA1 facilitates communication between the cell nucleus and mitochondria—the energy centers of cells that are a key factor in aging. This same region is also linked to increased expression of BLVRA in some tissues, which helps eliminate dangerous reactive oxygen species, and is therefore important to cell health.

Context Is Missing

While this study identified genes and pathways "important for longevity and healthy aging that are common between human populations," the authors write, it still "misses the context." That is, it's not able to compare the genes found here with a different population, or concretely say that any of them are unique to the Italian population living from the early 1900s to the early 2000s.

Putting longevity-related genes in context is important, according to the ecological perspective of healthy aging and longevity. This perspective indicates that genes that protect from age-related disease, for example, are dependent upon environmental interactions. If variants are protective in one environment, they could be neutral, or even risky, in another.

A clear example of this is sickle cell anemia, an inherited disorder that results in improperly formed red blood cells. While the disease itself is severe, it results from having inherited two sickle cell genes from both parents. It is possible to inherit only one and not develop the disease, while simultaneously being protected from malaria.

So the sickle cell gene, which protects from malaria in the "right" environment," can cause severe disease in the "wrong" environment.

What This Means For You

Beyond genetic background, your environment and lifestyle can make a big difference in the way you age. Introducing more exercise, a balanced diet, reducing stress, and taking care of your health can all help you remain healthy while aging.

Promote Healthy Aging, Regardless of Genes

Aging is a natural process that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), "results from the impact of the accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage over time."

With that accumulation of damage, processes like mental decline are more likely to occur. But again, this largely depends on genes and environment, as well as the complex interplay between them.

And because of all these factors, there is no ‘typical’ older person or way to age.

While more research is being done to understand the exact mechanisms of age-related disease, there are ways to stave off illness and live healthy for as long as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends six key steps for healthy aging:

  1. Eat and drink healthy: centering a diet around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and water.
  2. Move more and sit less: Try to exercise moderately 150-300 minutes a week. The more intense the exercise, the less time you need to be doing it.
  3. Don't use tobacco
  4. Get regular checkups
  5. Know your family history: This includes risk factors or past causes of death in your family. There could be a genetic component!
  6. Be aware of changes in brain health
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Article Sources
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  1. Sebastiani P, Nussbaum L, Andersen SL, et al. Increasing sibling relative risk of survival to older and older ages and the importance of precise definitions of “Aging,” “Life Span,” and “Longevity” The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 71:340–346. doi:10.1093/gerona/glv020

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  3. Giuliani C, Pirazzini C, Delledonne M, et al. Centenarians as extreme phenotypes: An ecological perspective to get insight into the relationship between the genetics of longevity and age-associated diseases. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 165, 195–201. doi:10.1016/j.mad.2017.02.007

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  5. World Health Organization. Ageing and health. Updated February 5, 2018.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 6 Tips for Healthy Aging. Updated September 20, 2019.