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Study: Live it up and live a long life

Heredity seen as top factor

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Julie Jones turned 90 in June, outlasting all of her four siblings after her longest-living brother died just over a week ago at 88.

How did she live so long? Not because she was constantly Jazzercizing, denying herself a yummy peanut butter sandwich or staying away from a fun party.

As someone who hates exercise, who loves an occasional scotch on the rocks or a chocolate milkshake from McDonald's, and who smoked for many years, Mrs. Jones says she comes by her longevity naturally. Her mother lived until she was 96.

"I didn't do anything special to get this far," Mrs. Jones said with a laugh.

The retired high school English teacher takes medication for heart issues, but continues to live in her home and drive on her own.

"I believe it is genetics. My sister was 88, and so was my brother, and here I am 90. All my life, I've eaten what I want to eat, I've never exercised and I have a bad heart and diabetes. Now, I just intend to keep on enjoying what I can."

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne, a proponent of exercise through the life span, might argue otherwise, but research confirms what Mrs. Jones and others have long pondered. Nature, it seems, beats nurture for those who live longer lives, a study from Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine has found.

"In this population, the environment plays very little roles. What they have is some genetic protection against the environment," said the study's lead researcher, Dr. Ni Barzilai, a physician who heads Yeshiva's Institute for Aging Research.

His study, first published Wednesday in the online version of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, looks at 477 Ashkenazi Jews ages 95 to 112 who lived independently. The Ashkenazi Jews are more genetically uniform, the researchers said, making use of them as a study population a clearer way to track gene differences.

The study group was interviewed about their lifestyles at age 70 to paint a picture of how they lived as adults. They responded to questions about weight and height to calculate body mass index along with information about alcohol consumption, physical activity, smoking and diet. Their answers were compared with those from a second group of 3,164 people who were close to the same age and who had been examined between 1971 and 1975 as a part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Overall, the study found that the Ashkenazi Jews didn't have healthier habits than their comparison-group peers.

"Our centenarians haven't been very special from the point of view of interacting with the environment," Dr. Barzilai said of his research. "They smoked, they exercised less than people within their control group. It looks like in this case the environment wasn't really very important to bringing those people to being 100 years old. It means the genes are more important."

The findings were released as the nation's first lady, Michelle Obama, touts healthier nutritional choices for Happy Meal-addicted children - even as she enjoys a good junk-food binge - and as late-night hawkers extol the virtues of kill-and-drill workouts as key for an ab-tastic future.

The research is sure to be reviewed by many in the nation's aging baby-boomer population, which sees itself as more active, vital and health conscious than generations past. According to the 2010 U.S. census, nearly 425,000 people living in the U.S. were 95 or older and about 40 million were 65 or older.

Among the growing baby-boomers group, such research on aging is increasing, said Ruth Dunkle, a professor and gerontologist at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work.

She argues that a healthy lifestyle coupled with good genes keeps people living longer.

"It's a combination of your environment and heredity how long you live," she said. "Everybody who smokes points to that person who is in their 90s who is still smoking. But they are rare. Your genes will only carry you so far. After that, you are responsible. Few of us know what our genetic construction is. They will say, our parents lived into their 90s, but they may have had a less stressful lifestyle and didn't live in an urban environment exposed to toxic fumes."

Dr. Barzilai was quick to caution that those who come from long-living families should not take that as a license to eat, drink and be sedentary.

"They should keep their weight down, exercise and do what their doctors say," he said. "Because we still have to determine whether everyone inherits those genetic traits."

Mrs. Jones adds one more factor that isn't scientific but that she believes is key to living a long life: a positive attitude.

"I am stupidly optimistic. I enjoy the beauty of the world and see the good in things," said Mrs. Jones, noting that she laughed long and hard during a summer viewing of the bawdy summer comedy film "Bridesmaids."

Life of the mind is also key. "I am a political person and my mind is good, so I read," she said of her interests. "There is much to enjoy, although there is much that I would like to do but can't because I am too feeble."

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