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Children of Centenarians Face Lower Heart Risks

Finding adds weight to belief that longevity runs in families

TUESDAY, Dec. 16, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Longevity runs in families, the saying goes, and new research shows there may be genetic and physiological reasons for the phenomenon.

The children of people who live to 100 and beyond are themselves much less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, and even diabetes, researchers found.

But they aren't impervious to non-cardiovascular health problems, such as cancer, dementia and depression.

The findings stem from an analysis of health data collected over a decade by the New England Centenarian Study, which focuses on people aged 97 and older and their family members. It's the first study to track the health of children of centenarians as they age.

"This confirms what we were already suspecting, and definitely suggests that there is a genetic component to the ability to create exceptional longevity," said study author Emily R. Adams, a third-year medical student at Boston University School of Medicine.

Adams and her Boston University colleagues, Dr. Dellara F. Terry and Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study, presented their findings in the November issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

For the 10-year study, initial and follow-up questionnaires regarding health status were presented to 440 children of centenarians, as well as to 192 men and women whose parents had not lived past 100. The average age of the participants was 72 when the study began in 1997.

The researchers found that compared to the average adult, children of centenarians had a 78 percent lower risk for a heart attack, an 83 percent lower risk for a stroke, and an 86 percent lower risk for developing diabetes.

They were also 81 percent less likely to die during the course of the study.

The researchers said the findings generally reinforce the important role that genetics play in reaching extreme old age, and specifically highlight the cardiovascular leg up children of centenarians appear to inherit from their parents.

But, Adams added, while good genetic lineage may portend a longer life, it doesn't guarantee protection against all diseases.

"You might expect that centenarian offspring would do better as they age, and that is true. They do follow a different trajectory, and go down a less steep slope," she said.

But, Adams noted that the study found that children of centenarians do not, for example, experience significantly lower rates of arrhythmias, cancer, macular degeneration, dementia, depression, fractures, osteoporosis and thyroid disease.

"It's really with the vascular diseases that they fared better," she said.

Jay Olshansky, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago's Center on Aging, said future work in this arena will focus on trying to isolate the mechanism behind genetic longevity.

"This study looked at outcomes and is directly in line with what you would expect," said Olshansky, who's also a professor with the university's school of public health. "But that is where this research is going next -- to find out how this very strong genetic component to living long plays out.

"But the bottom line," he added, "is that we already know that the genes that are associated with exceptional longevity already exist, and that they are concentrated in subgroups of the population. And the rest of us don't have those genes, or don't have all of them. Those who do have won the genetic lottery for making it out to exceptional old age. And, unfortunately, if you haven't won, there's no chance you can make it."

More information

To learn more about centenarians, visit the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

SOURCES: Emily R. Adams, third-year medical student, Boston University School of Medicine; S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., professor, school of public health, University of Illinois at Chicago, and senior research scientist, Center on Aging, University of Chicago; November 2008 Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
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