How Much Is Extreme Longevity Really Influenced By Lifestyle?

Credit: David Schroeter

When most people hear about an extremely old person, like a supercentenarian aged 110+, they tend to think these very slow aging people must have done something right that others have done wrong, simply based on their failure to replicate their longevity.

But is there really much truth in this? Is there any evidence extreme longevity can be induced by practising an unusually healthy lifestyle? Can a person who is "destined" to die at 90 "slow their aging" and live even longer?

Now let's examine this question a bit further

Popular media and books about aging and health wants us to believe that there are regions in the world where people do not get sick and die “healthy” of “old age” well above their century mark. 

Among the more known ones are Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, Sardinia, and places where people have documented genetic advantages, such as the village Limone sul Garda in northern Italy where inhabitants are extremely resistant to atherosclerotic heart disease. While several of these regions have more centenarians than elsewhere and a slightly higher life expectancy, one needs to carefully examine these numbers before drawing conclusions.

Researchers have attempted to identify common characteristics in long-lived populations

Compare Sweden and Okinawa for example, Okinawa has a population of 1.3 million and has so far produced 28 verified people over 110 from their smaller cohort of people alive over 100 years ago. Sweden has six times that number of people, a long history of peace and yet only 16 supercentenarians.

What can we make out of that data?

We know Okinawans on average live about 4 years longer than Swedish people and that lifestyle factors play a role, as Okinawans taking up modern eating habits lose their health advantages. So clearly epidemiological evidence shows their lifestyle helps to extend average lifespan and the number of people reaching supercentenarian status. This suggests lifestyle allows more individuals to reach extreme ages, but is this effect observed really a slowing of aging due to dietary patterns, or is it simply due to more people reaching "their maximum lifespan" by avoiding atherosclerosis and a reduction in cancer rates?

I argue the latter point of view

Critical components of aging damage such as immune system decline, loss of stem cells and protein misfolding have not been proven to be slowed through dietary choices, and there is negligible scientific plausibility to suggest so. 

The truth is therefore that there are no places where people really live that much longer than anywhere else. From the data that currently exists we can conclude that the world’s oldest people are normally about 115 years old, and come from very different geographic places with very different ancestry. Yes, we shouldn't dismiss the evidence that lifestyle can help you make it to later years in better condition with reduced risk of age-related disease, but the effect is minimal compared to what real intervention or beneficial genes can achieve. 

Some residents of Limone sul Garda possess a rare variant of apolipoprotein called ApoA-1 Milano which protects against atherosclerosis 

We need intervention if we want to make real progress

We shouldn’t be so preoccupied with emulating healthy lifestyles in "longevity regions", because it won’t help people live longer than the maximum individual lifespan of 115-120 years old, and there is little to suggest it would create many centenarians out of those who decline at “normal speed” and consequently get very frail and die in their late 80s - early 90s.

We can be sure that the first person to live to 130 will only happen following human intervention in the aging process, and this is what we should aim for as the ‘moonlanding’ event of the 21th century. Only then we can fully proclaim a victory over the aging process.

Guest contributor Victor Bjoerk