April 5, 2023 – People who live to 100 years old or longer have rare differences at a cellular level that enable their immune systems to function better and longer than those of people who live an average lifespan, new research shows.
Centenarians are able to delay diseases that commonly afflict people as they age because of these rare cells, and that helps them reach what the researchers called “extreme old age.”
When people experience an infection and their bodies recover, the immune system adapts. That ability to recover, learn, and adapt declines as people age. The new research shows that centenarians in the study had unique types of cells that contributed to a resilient immune system that didn’t decline with age like other people's did.
“The immune profiles that we observed in the centenarians confirms a long history of exposure to infections and capacity to recover from them and provide support to the hypothesis that centenarians are enriched for protective factors that increase their ability to recover from infections,” said author and biostatistician Paola Sebastiani, PhD, in a statement.
The study, conducted by researchers from Boston University and Tufts Medical Center, was published last week in The Lancet. The analyses included 14 people who were at least 100 years old and compared them to 52 younger people who ranged in age from 20 to 89 years old.
“Centenarians, and their exceptional longevity, provide a ‘blueprint’ for how we might live more productive, healthful lives,” said researcher George J. Murphy, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Boston University’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. “We hope to continue to learn everything we can about resilience against disease and the extension of one’s health span.”
Some of the centenarians included in the study also participated in the New England Centenarian Study, which is an ongoing project at Boston University. Key findings from that ongoing research are that longevity tends to run in families, people who live to 100 or older tend to delay disabilities until their 90s, and genetics play a big role.
This latest research contributes to researchers’ understanding that longevity is a combination of factors, researcher Stefano Monti, PhD, a Boston University associate professor of computational biomedicine, told USA Today.
"The answer to what makes you live longer is a very complex one," he said. "There's multiple factors, there's the genetics – what you inherit from a parent, there's lifestyle, there's luck."