Very Old Don't Always Have Healthy Habits

Longevity Genes May Protect Them From Unhealthy Lifestyles, Expert Says

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on August 03, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 3, 2011 -- Forget the stereotype pairing up longevity with clean living.

Men and women who live to age 95 and beyond, it seems, are overall no better than the general population when it comes to health habits such as watching their weight, eating well, and exercising, according to a new study.

"They are just as bad as the rest of us," says researcher Nir Barzilai, MD, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, New York.

Apparently, you can eat fried foods and ice cream, drink, smoke, and skip the gym and still plan your 100th birthday party. But probably only if you have the right genes, he says.

If you have longevity programmed in, Barzilai says, those genes seem to buffer you from bad habits. The bad news? "You can only know [if you have those genes] when you are there." By ''there," he means your 100th birthday or so.

The study findings are no reason to abandon healthy habits, he warns.

His study is published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Longevity and Health Habits: A Closer Look

For the study, Barzilai and his colleagues interviewed 477 Ashkenazi Jews, all living independently. This group is more genetically uniform than many other populations, so they are ideal to study. The age range was 95 to 109, with 97 or 98 the average.

Nearly three-fourths of the group were women.

The men and women described their habits at age 70. That is because it is more likely to represent the lifestyle they followed most of their adult life, Barzilai says.

Barzilai compared their health habits to those of 3,164 people born around the same time. The comparison group provided information to a large database, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, between 1971 and 1974.

Although the longer-lived men and women were better at some health habits than the comparison group, overall they were not much better.

Among the findings:

  • The very old were as likely as the others to be overweight or obese. Although 47.8% of the men with longevity were overweight or obese, 55% of the comparison group was. While 43.8% of the long-living women were overweight or obese, 41.2% of the comparison group was.
  • Among women, 9.6% of the very old were obese at some point during their lifetimes, compared to 16.2% in the comparison group. Among men, 4.5% of those with longevity compared to 12.1% of the comparison group were obese at some point.
  • Only 43% of long-lived men got regular exercise, but 57.2% of the comparison group did. Although 47% of long-lived women exercised, 44.1% of the comparison group did.
  • Daily alcohol consumption between the groups was similar.
  • About equal percents said they tried low-calorie diets. About one-fifth of the men and 27% of the women reported doing so.
  • Smoking (more than 100 cigarettes) was reported by nearly 30% of the long-lived women but 26.2% of the comparison women. Among men, nearly 60% of long-lived men smoked; nearly 75% of the comparison men did.

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.

"What that tells me is, the average bunch of us has the genetic makeup in the presence of good health habits that should get us to our late 80s," he says, adding the additional with years to the average U.S. life expectancy of about 80.

If you want to get beyond 88, he says, you may have to have the lucky longevity genes.

Show Sources


Nir Barzilai, MD, director, Institute for Aging Research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, New York.

Rajpathak, S. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, published online Aug. 3, 2011.

Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, founder and director, New England Centenarian Study; associate professor of medicine and geriatrics, Boston University.

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