In their quest to unlock the secrets of aging well, scientists are consulting the experts--men and women who have happily and healthily reached the ripe old age of 100 or older.
As science advances, centenarians around the globe are finding themselves the subject of an increasing number of studies, and one of the most ambitious is the Archon Genomics project, which aims to reveal the genetic code of the extremely long-lived.
The project, which is supported by several pharmacy benefit management groups in the United States, offers a prize of $10 million (781.2 million yen) for the researcher or team that "rapidly, accurately and economically" sequences the genomes of 100 people aged 105 or older. Participants include companies and research groups from Italy, Spain and elsewhere, while those on the other end of the microscope include centenarians from Japan, the global leader in life expectancy rates.
By carefully analyzing these genomes, researchers hope to identify the genes that protect against age-related diseases, while at the same time finding clues to leading a long and healthy life.
Dr. Thomas Perls, associate professor at Boston University and a leading authority in the field of centenarian research, assists with selecting participants for the study.
"This project is a chance to move closer to realizing the promise of medicine geared to the specific genetic code of each patient," he explains.
As part of his work, Perls recently paid a visit to Giuseppe Piro, a centenarian living near Boston.
Piro turned 102 on July 2, but he still manages to live alone and unassisted in his own apartment. He can walk around freely, albeit with a cane, and he enjoys a good chat, though his hearing isn't what it used to be. He makes his own breakfast and dinner each day, and lunch is spent with his 62-year-old daughter, who lives nearby.
According to Perls, long lifespans often run in the family, and Piro's case is no exception. His father and mother lived to 86 and 85 respectively, while his younger brother is a sprightly 93 and his younger sister died one month before her 95th birthday.
Piro, who used to be a printer, still has vivid recollections of the global depression that began in the United States in 1929.
"Everyone around us was unemployed, but my father managed to keep working, so we didn't starve," he reminisced during the visit.
His strongest memories, though, are of his time in the Army during World War II.
"I was really homesick and used to count down the days until I could go home, so I remember I served for exactly two years, five months and 20 days."
Piro credits his long life and good health to being happy and being blessed with long-lived parents.
"It also helps to sleep seven to eight hours a day and get up at regular hours," he added with a smile. He used to be an avid jogger and sometimes ran as much as 40 kilometers in a single day.
"Look, I didn't drink or smoke or chase girls, so I had nothing else to do besides go running!"
According to Perls, around 65,000 U.S. citizens, or about 1 in every 5,000, were centenarians as of 2010. One person in every 20,000, meanwhile, was over the age of 105. These figures are increasing every year.
At his laboratory, Perls collects data on 1,500 centenarians and 500 of their offspring. This includes DNA and blood samples, family and medical histories, and recordings of interviews. An analysis of the genomes of one man and two women over the age of 114 suggests those who live to a very advanced age might possess genes that protect against age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes. These genes are thought to delay the onset of these illnesses until much later in life. The plan is to push even further ahead with the analysis of genetic information with the help of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others.
The freezers of the Boston University laboratory are lined with more DNA samples waiting to be analyzed.
Perls says he hopes the research he and his colleagues are undertaking can change our view of growing old.
"We are prone to thinking about aging as a negative thing, but when you spend time around healthy, positive centenarians, you realize it is possible to age well. A comprehensive study of their genes will, I hope, reveal the necessary components for a long and healthy life."
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