Healthy at 100? Longevity Study Shows It's Common

People who live to 100 or older tend to enjoy good health, a New York/Boston team has determined. If they do become ill with diseases associated with aging, such as cancer and heart failure, they manifest these illnesses decades later than is typical in people under age 93.

Many people fear living into their 90s and beyond because they think that means having health problems or serious illnesses that will make them miserable.

People who live that long are also often assumed to be a financial burden on the US health system.

A new study of the oldest-old shows those concerns may be misplaced.

For nearly 2,000 people studied, a long life span has also meant a longer "health span" or "compression of morbidity," a team from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY and Boston University, Boston, MA report.

Writing in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Sofiya Milman, MD, MS, of Einstein and colleagues looked at morbidity in two groups of extremely old people who are participants in two longevity studies.

Those are Einstein's Longevity Genes Project (LGP), involving 439 people age 95 to 110 (74% female) and in the New England Centenarian Study (NECS) of 1,498 people age 95 to119. Their analysis also compared health of the study participants to two reference groups, one of people ages 53 to 93, and a second group ages 49 to 89.

In both groups of the oldest people there was a remarkable trend: they did not get ill with serious diseases like cancer and heart disease until 18 to 24 years later than the younger people in the reference groups. The team also found similar trends for the onset of diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and stroke. The oldest old had a lower risk of morbidity than did the younger people.

"The results of this study demonstrate that the NECS and LGP participants with exceptional longevity markedly and similarly compress morbidity and delay the onset of major age-related diseases and overall morbidity."

People who live past their 90s tend to have protective factors that keep them healthy as well as alive, they said. That also makes them an ideal sample for researchers to figure out just what ftraits or habits they may have that others could adapt to "promote healthy aging."

The study builds on previous LGP work that found the oldest people in the study "did not have healthier habits throughout their lives." Half were overweight or obese, most did not get even moderate exercise, and "60% of the men and 30% of the women were heavy smokers for a significant part of their lives."

A search for genetic clues to longevity was inconclusive. Whole-genome sequencing of 44 participants over 95 showed that while they had mutations that should have led to diseases, they hadn't gotten them.

In a related finding, the NECS group's genomes tended to have just as many single nucleotide polymorphisms associated with disease as the general population--meaning they did not have any special genetically based disease-protection.

Still, the researchers believe there are longevity genes and that "further study of the protective factors that contribute to this longevity phenotype could yield therapies that target the mechanisms responsible for exceptional longevity."