The ‘Super Gene’ Spotter
Tue, 02/08/2011
Editorial Assistant
Dr. Nir Barzilai.
Dr. Nir Barzilai.

Lily Port is in the Galapagos Islands. When she returns, she is going to visit her daughter in Texas, then take a vacation to Florida. A few months ago she took
a trip to Austria and Hungary, traveling on the Danube River between Vienna
and Budapest. Earlier last year, she journeyed to Australia and Singapore.

After decades of traveling, Port doesn’t seem to have slowed down — even though she’s 97.

And while it’s easy to attribute Port’s longevity, at least in part, to her active lifestyle and can-do attitude, the genetic study she’s taking part in claims she’d live just as long smoking cigarettes and sitting on her couch.

Port is one of the more than 2,000 participants in Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Longevity Genes Project, run by Dr. Nir Barzilai. The program aims to track those who remain healthy to an extended age — and their descendants — to study what he calls “the biology of aging.” What the study has found is the presence of “super genes” — certain DNA mutations, which are passed from generation to generation — that enable a person to live to an advanced age with few health complications.

Surprising to many, the population that the project studies has been more overweight, exercised less and smoked more than the general public.

“Of course I’m not saying if you smoke and are obese and don’t exercise you’ll live to be 100,” said Barzilai. “But if you have longevity genes, it really doesn’t matter, because you’re going to be protected.” One participant in the study has smoked for 95 years — and she’s a healthy 108.

The beneficiaries of the study are not simply the families of these “super agers.” The entire world, said Barzilai, can benefit from the study’s findings, which include information about what healthy centenarians tend to share: an elevated level of HDL, the “good cholesterol”; a mutation in the genes that adds an average of four years to life; and a specific gene that is linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. “The implication is not that you have to have genetic treatment,” said Barzilai. “You can have drug development” that mimics the genes’ effects on your body. Currently, Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, is developing a medication that would raise the level of HDL, based on genetic research.

“[As Jews] we are concerned with repairing the world, with tikkun olam,” said Barzilai, an endocrinologist and the director of the Institute for Aging Research at Einstein. “I think we should realize we have an opportunity to do that through genetic research. We can provide this shortcut, and find genes for major diseases,” which can lead to better drugs and treatment for various disorders.

The study, which began in 1998, takes into account both the genes and stories of its many participants. The oldest current participant is 112. To qualify for the project, members have to be Jews of Ashkenazic descent — to develop a homogenous population — and healthy at age 95. While the researchers don’t require proof of anyone’s Jewish background, “believe me, people who were born in the beginning of the last century didn’t want to adopt being Jewish,” said Barzilai, an Israeli native and former chief instructor of medics for the Israeli army. The participants are also required to have children who are willing to participate in the study, a factor Barzilai believes influences his men-to-women ratio.

“Across the world, it is basically, for every 100 centenarians, 85 are women and 15 are men,” said Barzilai, “but it’s more like 70/30 in my study. About one-third of the women centenarians in the world do not have children. By the fact that we request them to have children we’re excluding lots.”

Studying the participants’ families allows them to validate the findings they make about the centenarians with the next generations. Those findings, said Barzilai, are often misunderstood. “We’re not in the business to elongate life,” he said. “Maybe [the research will make] people live longer, but we are thinking of living healthier.”

Port, the well-traveled participant, believes her healthy lifestyle contributes to her longevity.

“I never smoked, I don’t drink,” said Port, who has been married three times — most recently at age 88 (he was 91). “I try not to overeat, I don’t want to gain weight.

“My parents left me good genes” she said. “I’ve had a blessed life … I was always fortunate to have access to good food.”

Port’s father killed himself in 1938, as the Nazis marched into Vienna. Her mother traveled with her to the United States, and lived into her 90s.

Port, who has one daughter, lives independently in a house in Westchester, where she walks up and down her staircase 100 times a day “just for the exercise.” Her only health concern is the deterioration of her retinas, so she stopped driving a couple years ago and travels with a magnifier. But Port wasn’t always convinced of her ongoing health, which is why she bought an apartment in a retirement home several years ago. “It was stupid, it was an impulse,” said Port, who has since sold it. “While I had this apartment, I was constantly torturing myself — should I give up the house and move over there?” Now that she gave it up, “I’m so happy. A retirement home is not for me.”

At 100, Louise Levy is used to fielding questions about the secret to longevity.

“Everybody asks me that,” she said, “and I don’t know the answer.” Levy stays active every day in an independent living facility, playing bridge, watching movies and doing tai chi. She even worked until two years ago — at the same time she stopped driving. After her car stopped working, “I took that as a message from up above that it was time. I felt I was too old to buy a new car.”

Levy, a Cleveland native, has two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her father died of cancer at age 74, while her mother survived to 94, and Levy herself is still “healthy to a degree” at 100. A blood condition requires occasional shots.

It is the participants’ relative health at such an advanced age, rather than their simple survival, that is so crucial for the study, according to Barzilai.

“We do know intuitively that we age at different rates,” he said. “We should find the pathways by which we are different” and learn from them.

“We’re not going to make any progress in curing any disease if we don’t consider how to delay aging.”

Those interested in participating in the study or who know someone who is, should visit www.superagers.com.
E-mail: amy@jewishweek.org.