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Growing old through genes or healthy living?


Growing old: genes or a healthy life?

Methuselah in the Bible is said to have been 979 years old. No real person gets that old, but Camelo Flores from Bolivia reached 123 years after he was born on July 16, 1890; he lived twelve years more than the oldest American, Alexander Imich, who died at the age of 111. However, Flores age is beyond any doubt - in contrast to the Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. Today, the American Susannah Mushatt Jones, born on July 6, 1899, is the oldest person.

Mythical methusalems

Many people are said to have grown considerably older: the Englishman Thomas Parr died in 1635 at the age of 152, according to his contemporaries; the German Martin Kaschke 1727 according to the sources with 117. Joseph Brunner in 1827 with the supposed 120 years blessed the temporal, and Therese Fiedler von Hülsenstein is said to have reached 119 years in 1876.

Historians found, however, that Brunner was actually only 88. It is only since the 19th century that birth certificates exist in many states that place an old age from the realm of myths on the ground of reality.

The first person to live to be 110 years old was the Dutchman Geert Adriaas Boomgard. He was born in Groningen in 1788 and died in his birthplace in 1899. Margaret Ann Neve was born in Guernsey in 1792 and died in 1903 - making her the first female to be 110 years old. Delina Filkins of New York died in 1928 at the age of 113 and held this record for 50 years.

But even in the 20th century, some records could not be maintained. This is how the 1980 Guinness Book named Charlie Smith, the American, as the oldest person. He stated that slave traders had taken him from Africa to the United States in 1854 - a document from 1854 seemed to confirm this. In 1980, however, Smith's marriage certificate appeared, which corrected his age to 104.

Some age records fall into the milieu of UFO believers, who obscurely remove the alleged photo that shows the supposed aliens: Indonesian Turinah Masih Sehat Sehat, for example, made a name for himself in 2010 as an allegedly 157-year-old. But she allegedly destroyed her documents in 1965 in order not to end up in prison as a supposed communist.

The Cuban Juana Bautista de la Candelaria, on the other hand, had an identity card that was born in 1885 - a clumsy forgery. Under the 1885, the overwritten 1913 was easily recognized.

Healthy until old age

However, a few thousand people who became over 110 are historically documented - and there may have been a lot more. These oldest people are busy with science. Do their way of life, their environment and their genes contain information that also helps other people to live longer?

Generally, the oldest women get older than the oldest men. Scientists explain this with the same causes as the average life expectancy, which is also higher in women.

Biological approaches see the male hormones at work, which wear out the body faster. This suggests that eunuchs who lack testosterone live longer on average than potent men.

Growth hormones and male sex hormones therefore shorten life. One thesis also says that female menstruation removes pollutants, heavy metals and iron from the body. In addition, the double X chromosome of women is said to protect against hereditary diseases and premature death.

Sociological and psychological theories tend to assume traditional roles. Men therefore suffer from activities that harm the body: they consume their strength in their role as utilities, they die and suffer injuries in the war, they take on dangerous work with long-term consequences for health, they go to the doctor less often in the event of illness, they smoke and drink more.

Where do the oldest people live?

Most of the ages come from rich countries, from Europe, the United States and Japan. Little age records are known in developing countries - with restrictions. Mountain regions of China, Azerbaijan and other regions of the Caucasus have been famous for their large numbers of extremely old people for centuries, and Abkhazia is also known for its old people and ancient women.

However, in Azerbaijan, for example, the information is questionable. In 1973 the shepherd Shirali Muslimov claimed to be 168 years old. A birth certificate from 1805 served as evidence.

Many very old people live in the province of Nuoro in Sardinia, as do Oinawa and Kyotango in Japan.

There are probably similar causes for the age records in the industrialized countries as for the also very high life expectancy. Anyone who is born in Spain, Germany or the Netherlands today has a statistically good chance of becoming 20 years older than their great-grandparents - the average life expectancy is over 80 years. In Bangladesh or Tanzania, it is less than half.

In Germany, the average life expectancy doubled from 1880 to 2007, and even more: today men live 76.6 years on average instead of 35.6, women even 82.1 instead of 38.5. Life expectancy increases by three months each year. The causes are undisputed medical advances and better hygiene as well as healthier working conditions.

Inadequate medical care, illnesses, poor nutrition, lack of education, wars and poor hygienic conditions ensure that the third world will only live to a few hundred years old, which means that it can reach the super-old group much less than in the industrialized countries: against genocide Alexander Imich's genes would have done nothing, and Jeanne Calment would never have reached her age if she drowned in a tsunami.

The lack of data also plays a role. The year of birth and death are meticulously recorded in the industrialized countries, but this is not the case in the Congo, Cambodia or with the Yanomani in the Amazon Basin.

However, the generally better conditions in the industrialized countries do not explain ancient times in Pakistan or the Caucasus. Because here the opposite of comprehensive medical care and good hygiene prevails.

Genetic dispositions?

There were very old people in all societies and in all centuries. In families of centenarians, many relatives also reach old age - this speaks for a genetic disposition. For example, the American Rosabell Zielke Champion Fenstemaker turned 111 when she died in 2005. Her mother, Mary P. Romeri Zielke Cota, died at the same age in 1982. Rosabell's sisters Edna, Edith and Marjoire were 99, 100 and 102 years old.

However, the “methusalems” in the industrialized countries speak against an ethnic disposition for long life: there are proportionally more super-aged Americans than Ugandan citizens, but Hispanics include African Americans, US citizens with Japanese roots as well as Native Americans.

Over 100s break the rules of aging. In general, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or heart diseases are among the typical diseases of the late stages of life. But not among the very old: From the age of 85, the number of diseases decreases - the extremely old then obviously age more slowly than the normal old. They are usually spared from age-related diseases.

Some of them even mock the teachings for a healthy life that leads to old age: Jeanne Calment died at 122 and had smoked twice as long as many people who live healthy lives live. In addition, she drank port wine in quantities.

Researchers at the University of Boston compared the genetic material of ancient to "normal old" and found 150 differences in the genome. These mutations also belonged to 19 genetic signatures that many of these extremely old people had in common. Some of these signatures are known to cause age-related diseases.

The over 100s break out of the general genetic disposition. In “normal people”, the genetic basis only plays a role of around 20%. Lifestyle is much more important: Those who do not smoke, eat healthy, do not eat too much and consume little alcohol, and also exercise regularly but not extremely, set the course for becoming over 80 - but not over 100.

People over the age of 100 not only get very old, but also rarely get sick. They have disease-related genes as well as early mortals. However, genetic dispositions for a long life presumably prevail over the genes that promote disease. For example, a centenarian carried the "breast cancer gene" BRCA-1. It is highly likely that those affected will develop breast cancer from the age of 40 - they will not.

Living healthy?

There are a particularly large number of ancient people on the Greek island of Ikaria, in Sardinia and in Japanese Okinawa.

Rembrandt Scholz from the Max Planck Institute in Rostock says: "There are a remarkably large number of very old people in some areas of China, in Japan or in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan, and extremely old men also live in Sardinia."

The people in these regions have some things in common:

  • The rate of cardiovascular failure is very low.
  • Very old people also work and live in their own households, a third live in the family and only every third 100-year-old needs care.
  • The ancient people are not only old, but mostly still healthy and independent in their last phase of life.
  • The ancient people mainly live in village communities. They have neither the possibilities of modern apparatus medicine, nor do they often consult a doctor.

Very old people in traditional societies are similar in exercise, social environment and diet. For example, they are often shepherds and farmers in mountain regions. These people physically work outdoors every day - since childhood.

Your options to choose the path of life are limited. When it comes to illnesses, they rely on home remedies and oral methods that we refer to as naturopathy. Their food consists of crops and little meat; They hardly consume industrially produced food, but tomatoes, potatoes and peas from their own farm.

The valleys of the Caucasus, the mountains of Sardinia and the villages of Ithaca are similar: they have a mild microclimate, a regional cuisine with little meat, lots of fruits and vegetables and a lifestyle without the stress of modern cities.

In Sardinia, for example, the food consists of the Mediterranean cuisine recommended by nutritionists: whole grain bread, sheep and goat cheese, olives, zucchini, onions and legumes, oregano and rosemary, occasionally fish and rarely lamb, goat or pork.

In the Caucasus, vegetable stews are the norm, apples, pomegranates, olives, garlic and fresh herbs, along with melted butter, yogurt, sheep's cheese and buttermilk. However, the Talyschen legendary for their old age in Azerbaijan have a high-calorie diet. The menu mainly includes fat mutton, bread and, above all, dairy products.

The very old son of the much older Talyschin Mizayeva explains the long life with social security: “The old people enjoy respect in our culture. They live in the middle of the extended family, are loved, cared for and happy. ”

The psyche plays an important role in whether we are healthy - in body and soul. It is undisputed. Life expectancy of people suffering from dysfunctional relationships suffers: they develop psychosomatic symptoms, including disorders such as borderline or depression, which in turn drive them to self-destruction. Various old people also died shortly after their spouse died.

So do ages in traditional societies last so long because they are socially integrated, find meaning in life and have a task?

This idea corresponds to the longings of postmodern neurotics who miss this social warmth - but empirical studies are still pending.

The only logical thing is that the Methuselah, whose age has value, lacks a motive to end their lives actively or passively; that they do not die because their relatives neglect them and that they remain mentally healthy because they do not suffer from the stigma of the superfluous.

In any case, the age-olds in Okinawa, Sardinia, Pakistan and Azerbaijan all have many social contacts. However, it has not been proven whether this is a decisive factor in comparison to those under the age of 100 who live in isolation in a retirement home. This would require viable studies comparing the extent and quality of social contacts between these ancient and old in industrialized countries.

Scientific research into the “Methuselah Complex” is therefore just beginning. It promises not only knowledge about the ancient, but also about factors that influence the “normal” diseases that ultimately lead to an earlier death. So maybe it also helps us ordinary people to live longer. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Swell:

  • Boston University School of Public Health: Long Life Family Study (accessed October 13, 2019), bu.edu
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  • Angela Wiedemann, Christian Wegner-Siegmundt, Marc Luy: Causes and Trends of the Gender Difference in Life Expectancy in Germany; in: Journal of General Medicine, Volume 91, Issu 12, 2015, online-zfa.de
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