What makes some people so long-lived? In the classic science fiction story Methuselah’s Children, Robert A. Heinlein postulated that extreme longevity could be achieved by genetics. Encourage long-lived families to mate with each other, and in a few generations you would produce the ageless Lazarus Long, who lived well past the age of 200.
Now researchers, too, are looking at the genetics of longevity. Recently maps of the genomes of two 114-year-olds — 114 years! — were published, and scientists are examining the data, trying to figure out what has made the two so amazingly long-lived. So far, the answer is: who knows? The supercentenarians don’t seem to have different genetic structures, or genes that perform different functions. Yet, somehow, they have lived far longer than the average person.
Obviously, there is an environmental component of extreme age. If you live in a war zone, or a disease-ridden area, you are less likely to live a long life. As time passes, however, genetics plays an increasingly significant role. The super-old don’t experience dementia. They don’t have problems with cardiovascular disease, or Parkinson’s disease. They’ve managed to avoid other diseases and conditions that routinely fell individuals who make it past 80, too. But what is it that they have that others don’t?
Figuring out whether there is a genetic key that allows people to live longer is likely to be a focus of medical research in the future. If drug companies will spend billions developing allergy medication and sexual performance drugs, what would they spend to discover a drug that approximates the effect of special genetic conditions of supercentenarians and allows humans with “average” genes to live super-long lives?
In the meantime, the rest of us will just hope that we inherited the genetic secrets of our most long-lived ancestor.