Can Supercentenarians Show Us How To Live Past 100?

Lunenberg County, Nova Scotia, is known for its sparkling coves and beaches, recreational lakes, and convenient commute to Halifax. It’s also where you’ll find one of the largest concentrations of people living into their 90s and 100s.

Recently, a research team from The University of Richmond, led by psychology professor Jane Berry, traveled to Lunenberg to meet some of these centenarians and nonagenarians (persons aged 90 to 99). What did they have in common? Berry says it’s a combination of “genetic makeup, living in a close-knit community and being active.”

Joy Saunders, 99, still lives independently, exercises daily, and volunteers. “There’s always something to do. There’s no reason in the world to be bored at all.”

Centenarians happen to be the fastest growing demographic in Canada, although they still only number about 8,000 across the country. Still, as the average lifespan of people in developed countries approaches 80, we’re all curious to find out how these individuals have managed to thrive for two or more decades longer than most.

Scientists around the world are looking to an even more elite group of people to answer that question: supercentenarians, or individuals who live to age 110 or longer. This group is dramatically smaller than that of centenarians; only one person in five million will live to be 110 years old.

Geriatrician Dr. Thomas Perls, the director of the world’s largest study of centenarians and supercentenarians, call these people his ‘supers.’ In a recent conversation with The Current, he dispelled the myth that people who live to this age must be very frail, ill, or suffering from dementia. Centenarians and “supers” are just that: they display almost shockingly good health and capacities.

“On average they are living independently without any significant age-related disease at about 105 or 106,” says Dr. Perls. “The supers are the creme de la creme in terms of aging extraordinarily well.”

Genetics, he has found, plays the most important role. Most of the people he has studied appear to have inherited fewer DNA variations that put them at risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and other afflictions.

“To get to these most extreme ages, genes actually play a really important role. It’s probably like 70 percent genes and 30 percent environment and behaviour,” Dr. Perls asserts.

Last week, new research on the DNA sequences of supercentenarians was released. The research was the result of a remarkable private effort by a self-professed “citizen-scientist” named James Clement. Clement spent six years, with advisory counsel from the prominent Harvard geneticist George Church, collected DNA samples from supercentenarians in 14 states and seven countries.

Although Mr. Clement quickly found that there were 2,500 differences between the supercentenarian DNA and that of the controls, much more research is needed to determine which are significant.

In July 2016, Mr. Clement took a DNA sample from the oldest man in America, Clarence Matthews. At 110, Mr. Matthews stated that he had never been diagnosed with a serious illness in his life and that he still very much enjoyed his days. When asked if he had any advice for living to 110, he showed that his sense of humor was still spry: “Keep breathing.”

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