Aging determined by genetics, lifestyle

May 27, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Forty is the new 30; 60 the new 40; 70 the new 50. What keeps some people young while others fail the test of time? Scientists are getting closer to unraveling the secrets.

"I don't feel like I'm 96," said Agnes Hurlburt Buckly.

"I am 90 years old," said Muriel Hurlburt Gillooly.

"I'm 88," said Helen Hurlburt Caldwell.

The Hurlburt family knows something about long life. There are 11 siblings. Four feel fine in their 90s. The rest? Energetic in their 80s. They have a lot in common.

"It's wonderful. None of us are in wheelchairs or walkers or canes," said Millie Hurlburt Maclsaac, 93.

"Don't drink, don't smoke, don't worry," said Hurlburt Buckly.

But why this family? Some say they won the genetic lottery. Others subscribe to the new 30-70 rule -- 30-percent of aging is genetically based. The other 70 percent is in our hands.

"Our genes are what they are, but what we can do potentially is design drugs and health supplements that might alleviate some of the deficits of having a bad gene here or a bad gene there," said Lenny Guarente, Ph.D., biologist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Guarente believes the key could be in something called sirtuins.

"Sirtuins are a family of genes that we discovered in yeast that can make the cells live longer," said Dr. Guarente.

It turns out we all have them.

"We believe by keeping these genes functioning properly, we can forestall aging. It can slow down aging," said Dr. Guarente.

Scientists found a way to activate these anti-aging genes with resveratrol, which is found in grapes and red wine and already marketed as a wonder drug to the masses.

Researcher Tom Perls is fighting aging in another rather surprising way. He donates a unit of blood every eight weeks. He said he believes a woman's menstrual cycle is one reason women delay the onset of age related diseases like heart disease and stroke.

"They're relatively iron deficient for about 30, 40 years compared to men and it may be as simple as less iron in your system," said Tom Perls, Ph.D., director New England Centenarian Study.

While some believe less iron is key, others think fewer calories can add more healthy years to your life. But eating right seems to be just part of the puzzle.

"Married 62 years and we met in high school," said Jean Leslie, 85.

Jean and Walter Leslie are both 85 And while they may not have discovered a magic pill for longer life, the Chicago couple is doing a few things right. They're part of the long-running Chicago Health and Aging Project. It's a federally funded study that's been keeping tabs on those 65 and older on the city's South Side.

"We're looking at answering some pretty improtant questions when it comes to aging," said Dr. Neelum Aggarwal, neurologist, Rush University Medical Center.

And they're zeroing in on what not only keeps people alive but vibrant as well. The three key components seem to be staying active, challenging the brain with games and new activities and staying socially connected with others in the community and of course your family.

"Keep walking. Walking is so important, it's more than people understand," said Dr. Aggarwal.

It may seem like a given, but Dr. Aggarwal says people also need to understand where they are healthwise. She says keeping chronic conditions in check, such as diabetes or hypertension, can not only help you live a longer life but stay active and happy as well.

Chicago Health and Aging Project

Rush University Medical Center

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