Scientists Find Genes for Long Life

Aug. 27, 2001 -- Helen Faith Reichert smokes a half a pack a day, eats whatever she wants, and hardly exercises.

This fall, she will turn 100 years old.

What is the secret to her longevity? A new study suggests it may be in the genes.

In a report published in Tuesday's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists at Harvard University and Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center announce they have found the location of a gene, or genes, responsible for a long life.

Tom Perls, director of the study, sees the results as a new frontier in geriatrics.

"No one's ever looked at the genetics of exceptional longevity in humans," says Perls. "It's been done in lower organisms, but this is the first try at looking at humans."

The findings may seem to contradict conventional wisdom, but Reichert pooh-poohs the idea that a healthy, conservative lifestyle is the only path to long life.

"There is no formula," says Reichert, who lives in Wesport, Conn. "I don't think anybody who lives to be 100 sat down and wrote out a plan — 'I'll be a good girl, I'll make a lot of exercise, I'll eat a lot of vegetables, I'll go to bed regularly' — nothing like that. I did just the opposite."

All in the Family

Perls was inspired when, in the course of his research, he noticed that centenarians often had siblings who were similarly blessed with long lives.

This phenomenon certainly applies to Reichert, who has a 98-year-old sister and brothers aged 91 and 95. All four lead vigorous, active lives.

To find the common thread, the Boston researchers studied more than 130 families including Reichert's, comparing the DNA of sets of siblings who were older than 90 and had at least one member who was 98 or older.

From among tens of thousands of genes, they narrowed their search down to a region on Chromosome 4 that exhibited common elements across subjects. Somewhere in this section, they believe, lies the key to longevity.

"Within this region, which is still quite large, there may be anywhere between 100 and 500 genes," says Perls. "And one or two of those is probably playing an important role in the ability of these individuals to get to an extreme old age in good health."

Slowing Time

Scientists say the next step, perhaps within the next year, is to identify those one or two genes and learn how they extend life. One appealing theory is that the genes work by providing broad protection from disease.

The hope is that if scientists can isolate specific "longevity genes," they may be able to figure out what chemicals the genes produce, and capture their effects in a pill that would allow people to live longer, healthier lives.

The study is still searching for centenarian volunteers, who can contact them via the researchers Web site.

ABCNEWS' John McKenzie contributed to this report.