What’s the secret to a long, long life? Apparently, it’s in the genes.
"It’s a bit like winning the lottery," said Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrician at Boston University and director of the New England Centenarian Study.
In North America, centenarians account for about one in 5,000 people, Perls said, while those who have lived to be 108 occur only once in 250,000.
"It’s very, very rare," he said. "It’s not because of a single genetic variant that makes them rare. It’s got to be a combination of genetic variants. Each one might be relatively common, but it’s getting the right combination that is rare."
Jemima ("Mime") Westcott is one of those rare cases.
Westcott, 108, was a participant in Perl’s study, a long-term research project at the Boston Medical Center that explores why people enjoy exceptional longevity.
One of 11 children, Westcott’s brother is the only one left, besides herself. He’s in his late 90s.
The former schoolteacher, who raised five children, has been widowed for more than 50 years.
While she’s very hard of hearing now and doesn’t get around easily, her mind is still sharp.
Sitting in her room at Dinsdale Personal Care Home in Brandon, her newspaper in her lap, Westcott can still recall the soldiers coming home from the First World War ("I was seven, I think"), of travelling extensively across Europe, North America and the U.S. and of seeing the Great Barrier Reef while spending a year with family in Australia.
“It’s a bit like winning the lottery.” — Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study
This month, the lifelong curling fan attended the 2019 Tim Hortons Brier in Brandon.
It was one of her rare outings these days.
"When I went to the curling, I couldn’t believe how cold it was," Westcott chuckled.
While the scientists tell her the key to her long, long life is in the genes, she also credits it to being active and not letting things get to her.
"I think temperament has a lot to do with it," she said, adding that attitude was a family trait.
Westcott said her 105-year-old sister died peacefully in her sleep.
When her time comes, she hopes she can go the same way.
"I keep hanging on," she laughed.
Close on Westcott’s heels in the longevity lottery is Hazel Skuce, a fellow Brandon resident who celebrated her 107th birthday in February alongside her younger sister, Clara Hornibrook, 105.
When asked the perfunctory question about her secret to a long life during an interview with The Brandon Sun at Hillcrest Place personal care home in February, Skuce said there really isn’t one.
"I think what happens, happens," she said. "I’m just happy today and the next day and so on."
“I keep hanging on.” — Jemima (Mime) Westcott, 108, who took part in the New England study
Hornibrook told the Sun she didn’t expect to be celebrating her sister’s 107th birthday at the age of 105.
While we all have the same genes, there are variations of genes that are associated with extreme longevity, Perls said.
They are called longevity-enabling genes.
"These, we believe, are genes that are important in slowing down aging and decreasing one’s risk for aging-related diseases," Perls said.
His team and others have found centenarians have a similar frequence of disease-related genes as anyone else.
"So, surely what makes them different is genes that help them age better, help them age more slowly and decrease their risk for age-related diseases," Perls said.
He uses the analogy: "We all are cars, we all have tires, but maybe we have better engines."
Perls and his colleagues have uncovered hundreds of genetic markers that seem to perform a protective function, slowing aging and making this group less vulnerable to disease.
Other researchers, in sequencing the genome of centenarians, have found they possess fewer of the genes that contribute to major diseases.
As well, scientists suspect there may be some kind of intrinsic biological clock in people that runs slower in some and quicker in others, which would accelerate aging and wear down the body’s protective processes. Those with faster clocks are more vulnerable to the onset of fatal diseases and die earlier.
That, Perls said, "is not suggesting that everybody has a predetermined biological clock that as time runs out, you know, that’s it."
“I think what happens, happens.” — Hazel Skuce, who celebrated 107th birthday in February
Rather, he said, it’s about biological age as opposed to chronological age. Some people simply age better than others "and chronological age is not a good measure of that, obviously, because people can look so very different and have such different rates of aging-related diseases."
Meanwhile, about half of centenarians demonstrate the kind of familial longevity found, to some degree, in Westcott’s and Skuce’s cases.
"We know that extreme longevity like this can run strongly in families," Perls said, adding families have a lot in common besides genes.
"They also have habits in common that can be pretty powerful when it comes to how well a person ages," he said, "and that could include whether or not they smoke, what their diets are, their exercise habits and so on."
For 70 per cent of average individuals, how old they live to be is going to be dictated by their health-related behaviours: "People who are smoking, who are drinking too much alcohol or are not exercising and who are getting fat."
But once a person gets beyond 100 or 105, "then genes play a bigger and bigger role to the point that, I think, by the time you’re looking at your 108-year-old, it’s completely switched and 70 per cent of getting to that 108 is going to be due to her picking her parents well and genes," Perls said.
By discovering these gene variants and the pathways they govern, scientists are hopeful they can find potential drugs to do the same thing to these pathways that the genes are.
While Westcott and Skuce may be winners in the genetic lottery, more and more Canadians are reaching the age of 100 and beyond, Statistics Canada found.
On July 1, 2018, preliminary estimates indicate there were 9,968 centenarians in Canada, or 26.9 per 100,000 population, Statistics Canada said. By comparison, in Japan, which has one of the oldest populations in the world, there were about 56 centenarians per 100,000 population in May 2018.
The growth rate of the centenarian population has often been one of the highest of all age groups in the last 40 years, Statistics Canada said.
One of those people is Mattie Marshall, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday with fellow residents at Victoria Landing retirement residence.
Marshall grew up on a farm in Fleming, Sask.
"I liked the farm," said the soft-spoken woman as she waited in her apartment for the party to begin.
"Farming was never work as far as I was concerned."
No one else in her family had reached the 100-year milestone. Her five brothers and sisters didn’t live past their 90s. Her mom died at the age of 93, her dad was 90.
Her only child, Brian, is 64.
Asked why she thinks she has lived so long, Marshall said she didn’t give much thought to the idea of genetics.
Instead, she said, she never smoked or drank alcohol and tried to keep an even temperament.
"I didn’t grumble very much either," she chuckled.
Women do tend to live longer than men, Statistics Canada found.
Among people aged 100 and older, there were five women for every man, a result of women having a longer life expectancy than men—83.6 years for women compared with 79.4 years for men in 2011.
By 2051, the number of centenarians could reach nearly 40,000, about five times the number in 2016. The first children of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1951, will be aged 100 and older by then.
Perl said studies such as his and others are not intended to add to the list of those who live well past their centennial.
"The aim of our studies is not to get a lot of people to get to extreme old age," he said, "but rather to use these discoveries to help people avoid ... aging-related diseases with the hope that people can get to older age in good health."
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