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Very Old Don't Always Have Healthy Habits

Longevity Genes May Protect Them From Unhealthy Lifestyles, Expert Says

Longevity: Why?

Barzilai asked the men and women why they believed they had lived so long. Good genes were on the top of the list, with nearly 35% of the women and more than 25% of the men crediting their long lives to that.

Among other factors they believed got them past their 95th birthday:

  • Diet
  • Physical activity
  • Positive attitude
  • Social or family support
  • No smoking or moderate alcohol
  • Keep busy or active, work
  • Luck
  • God, religion, spirituality
  • Charity of helping those in need

However, the answers did not always square with their health habits, Barzilai says. "Many of the people who said diet [was the reason they lived so long] were actually overweight or obese," he says.

Some answers defied logic, he says. "One said chicken fat," he says. For another, it was chocolate three times a day.

The good genes answer may have been the most logical. "More than 2/3 have a family history of longevity," he says.

Longevity: Perspective

The study implicates that genetic factors protect some people from bad choices, agrees Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University. He is founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study. He reviewed the study for WebMD but was not involved in it.

"We believe exceptional longevity runs in families," he tells WebMD. However, it's not as simple as that.

"Families share many things besides genes," he says. For instance, members may have the same level of education. As a result, they may have higher incomes, and that is linked to better health.

Like Barzilai, he says the study is no reason to abandon good health habits. ''No one in their right mind should be taking this news as 'If I have longevity in my family it's OK to do anything I want to my body,'" he says.

Exactly what percent of the population could have these exceptional genes isn't known.

However, as Perls points out, studies done in the Seventh Day Adventist community, known for their healthy choices, suggest following good health habits could add up to eight more years of life.

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