Researchers Work to Crack Code of Long Life

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 21, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

May 21, 2004 (New York) -- Jeanne Louise Calment knows the secret to a long life. But she's not telling -- and it's not because she doesn't want you to know.

The problem, researchers said Friday at a symposium on aging in New York, is that this secret is tightly locked up in her genes. And until scientists can crack the genetic code, consumers may as well save the money they spend on anti-aging products and procedures.

Jeanne Louise Calment was born in Arles, France on Feb. 21, 1875, and died Aug. 4, 1997, at the age of 122 -- making her the oldest person to ever live. Calment was what is known as a "supercentenarian," or a person who lived to 110 years or more. And supercentenarians may hold the key to immortality. There are 43 such people known to be living worldwide (although this may be an underestimate) and researchers are hoping to crack their genetic codes.

People don't live to be 110 "because they don't age; it's a fortuitous, genetic roll of the dice, so there is not an intervention available to people who are still alive," says L. Stephen Coles, MD, PhD, a gerontologist with the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group at UCLA. "No one is likely to beat Jeanne Calment's record in our lifetime because she was so exceptional."


Siblings and parents of supercentenarians also live extremely long lives, he adds.

There has been a lot of confusing data suggesting that environment is more important than genes at dictating life span, he notes, but "if you only study supercentenarians, it's probably 70% genes and 30% environment because it is your genes that allow you to get to a very old age," he says.

"There is something special in the genome of our species itself that dictates maximum life span.

"Every anti-aging intervention has practitioners and advocates ... but these types of interventions are nothing more than rearranging the chairs on the Titanic," says Coles, who spoke at the symposium, which was jointly presented by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.


"Everything that's being advertised by pharmaceutical companies including vitamins and supplements as the secret to eternal youth are all wrong and not true anti-aging medicine," he tells WebMD. "That's not to say you shouldn't take vitamins or fasten your seatbelt."


To stop aging, scientists have to fully understand and then reprogram the human genome. And this makes cracking the languages of the Rosetta Stone seem simple, he says. Unearthed in July 1799, the Rosetta Stone was the key to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

So how long is this going to take?

"Five years is the minimum because we need a 'parts list' for all the parts that make a human, a human," he says. "If we want to intervene in aging, we need to understand the blueprints that make us who we are."

Such a parts list is currently being generated by companies researching proteomics (the study of proteins that genes direct the body to make).

"We need to understand this language," he says.

"It's putting a puzzle together and five years is the minimum; the maximum may not be in our lifetimes," he says. But when it comes to stopping the hands of time, this is the "true gold," Coles tells WebMD.


Coles says that some of this research should focus on embryology. The study of how a fertilized egg implants and grows into a human being "should be highest priority," he says. Specifically, 80% of all fertilized eggs do not implant and scientists need to know why.

The secret to long life has got to be in the genes, says Putnam County, N.Y.-based researcher Louis Epstein, chairman of the International Supercentenarian Committee. "There is a wide variety of people who happen to make it to 110 -- from vegetarians to junk food junkies, he says.

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Sources: Stephen Coles, MD, PhD gerontologist, Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group, UCLA. Louis Epstein, chairman, International Supercentenarian Committee.

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