No doubt we can learn much about history, culture, and society from our elders, but can we learn the secrets of their longevity? Maybe from their genes. At least that’s the hope of Nir Barzilai at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who has spent more than twenty years trying to pinpoint the genes of Ashkenazi Jews that allow some of them to live healthy lives, into their hundreds.
The people who make it to centenarian status, writes Geoffrey Kabat in Forbes, tend to develop diseases at ages later than the rest of us. Furthermore, their longevity seems to be heritable (three siblings studied by Barzilai all made it past 105). Barzlai’s ultimate goal is to confer whatever biological boon allows these people to remain so healthy for so long to the general population. Age, after all, is a major factor in the risk of life-threatening disease—far more important to our risk of heart disease than cholesterol.
In 2008 Barzilai—working with Pinchas Cohen, then-chief of endocrinology at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA— published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA identifying two mutations especially common in Ashkenazi Jews who lived past 95. Both mutations influence a growth hormone submitted by the liver, long implicated in longevity. They were dubbed “Methuselah mutations” by Scientific American.
Previous research into longevity, particularly the identification of specific “longevity genes” has a spotty record. In 2011, Nature published a paper disputing the link between genes that produce proteins called sirtuins and longer lifespan. Sirtuins are a class of proteins that influence a wide range of cellular processes like aging, transcription, cell death, and inflammation. The resultant controversy damaged all claims about longevity.
Slate recently published a piece challenging the idea that scientists might save us from old age anytime soon. The article quoted Jay Olshansky, a gerontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who noted that people have been saying for many decades that a big breakthrough in longevity is just 10 years away.
For the time being, any efforts to find the genetic fountain of youth should be viewed with the same skepticism we now lavish on Ponce de Leon’s original quest.