Dr. Thomas Perls is a long-standing friend and colleague. The so-called super agers were studied. People live into their 90s without being affected by any of the usual diseases that old age brings. He is convinced that the secret to this remarkable longevity is buried in people’s genes and passed down through generations.
What genes are responsible for this ability? And if researchers pinpoint the right genes amid thousands in a person’s body, could that knowledge be harnessed to develop drugs that mimic those genes and allow more people to enjoy longer, healthier lives?
That’s the premise behind an ambitious new trial, the SuperAgers Family Study, (superagersstudy.org) that aims to enroll 10,000 people who are 95 years old or older and their children.
“People think everyone would have Alzheimer’s and other diseases at this age, and it’s not true” said Perls, professor of medicine at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, and a co-investigator of the SuperAgers Family study.
“They have a history of aging very slowly and they greatly delay disability with the diseases they have,” Perls said.
The collaboration between BU, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Alt Einstein College of Medicine) and the American Federation for Aging Research aims to enroll individuals who are aged 95 or older.
Researchers will examine the traits of super-agers and their children in comparison to those in older adults whose parents are not super agers. Researchers seek to identify natural and inherited factors that help protect against human aging.
Participants will need to give their general health information as well as a saliva sample. The tube is sent to them via mail and returned to Albert Einstein College of Medicine in a return envelope. The researchers say privacy of samples (which will be used to extract participants’ DNA) and information will be maintained by using a unique barcode rather than participants’ names.
“The goal is to amass the largest data bank of super agers so we can begin to untangle the contribution of genetics to exceptional longevity,” said Dr. Sofiya Milman, director of the Human Longevity Studies Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and principal investigator of the study. Milman explained that researchers believe longevity is tied to rare genetic variants found in less then five percent of the population. A large databank is necessary.
Data will be shared with scientists who are interested in healthy aging.
Among those already in Perls’ BU data bank from a separate, ongoing study of people who live to 100, is Francis St. Germain Sr. of Medford.
St. Germain is only 98 years old, but his father lived until 107. His two brothers, 92 and 99, are his twins.
“I had 12 children, so I have been busy all my life, and that kept me alive,” he said.
St. Germain, who was a Navy motor machinist’s mate, second class, in WWII, has 31 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren, and 12 great-great-grandchildren — many of whom may also bear longevity genes.
Perls noted that it is not common to live beyond 100 years, but it is possible.
“People who live to 100 are now one per five thousand in the population,” he said.
Perls stated that people who live to age 105 or older are 1 in 250,000. Those who reach 110 years old are 1 in 5 million.
Perls stated that many people who exercise regularly and eat healthy meals will reach 90. Research suggests that genetics plays a greater role than this.
“It’s picking your grandparents well,” he said.
St. Germain values good genes and healthy living. He begins each day with steel cut oatmeal he prepares at night.
Research suggests that even those who don’t live a healthy lifestyle, but have super longevity genes, may still be protected against heart disease and other illnesses.
“If the children of super agers were smokers, had diabetes, and were at risk for cardiovascular disease, being a child of a super ager was protective,” said Milman, who has This phenomenon has been studied.
There are many people who have deep pockets and can unlock the secrets of longevity. Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder), who invested billions in the launch of his company last year. Altos Labs in California with a goal of developing life extension therapies that can “restore cell health and resilience to reverse disease, injury, and…disabilities.”
Nicholas Schork, a long-term researcher, said that there are two main routes scientists are taking in their quest to find therapies that slow down aging. Perls and Milman followed the SuperAgers path, trying to determine the genes that are responsible for longevity. This knowledge will be used to develop therapies.
The other camp has turned to “repurposing.” This group of researchers studies drugs already on the market that have shown signs of staving off ailments for which they have not yet been approved. The TAME Trial is one such study. It uses metformin (a drug that’s used to treat type 2 diabetics) to test whether it works. Metformin-dependent patients Delay or progression of age-related chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, dementia, and other diseases.
Schork noted there are over 500 studies listed in the government’s database of ongoing trials aimed at unlocking the mysteries of aging.
“The belief is, if you could figure out the fundamental mechanism associated with aging, and slow the rate at which people age and accumulate [cellular] damage, these internal clocks that tick away throughout life, you could slow the aging rate down and you could help prevent age-related diseases,” said Schork, deputy director of Quantitative Sciences at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, City of Hope Medical Center.
But St. Germain, the 98-year-old Medford great-great-grandfather, is too busy living life to dwell on his longevity. He is scheduled for heart surgery in December, related to his atrial fibrillation, but doesn’t think that will slow him down. Instead, his focus is on May 2024. That’s when he hits 100.
He Already booked the Elks Lodge at Saugus for this celebration.
“I am making plans,” he said, “to bring the whole family.”
You can find more information about SuperAgers Family Study here [email protected]