Researchers Seek Key To Long Life

Tuesday, May 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Juanita Ollman survived the flu epidemic of 1919, heavy smoking during World War II, a car accident on a North Carolina mountainside when she was 93, and the pneumonia that hospitalized her when she was 99.

She has no magic recipe for her longevity: She exercised regularly, including years of ballroom dancing. But she eats anything she wants, including breakfasts of bacon and eggs. Church and family kept her centered, but a son's service in the war drove her to cigarettes.

Ollman and others who have lived past 100 are being studied for their secrets. Researchers are sifting through such histories, seeking the answer to what leads to a long life: good genes, good habits or just good luck.

``I don't know that I've done anything extra,'' said Ollman, who turned 100 last July. Maybe it's the treadmill: ``Sometimes I skip a day, and I don't always get up to a mile, sometimes it's just three quarters of a mile.''

John LaFauci, a 101-year-old who publishes a weekly newsletter for his Smithfield, R.I., retirement complex, swears it's good genes, and his avoidance of beef. Helen Rose, 100, a retired teacher in Waterloo, Iowa, credits a love of learning and Jesus.

``This is a ripe time to begin looking at this extraordinary group,'' said Dr. Robert Butler, director of the International Longevity Center, a New York City center where researchers look at how societies react to aging.

Just one in 10,000 Americans have lived a century. They're the fastest growing age group, and by 2050 _ when the oldest baby boomers would reach 100 _ there could be nearly a million people that age or older, the Census Bureau says. An exact number is expected in June.

Scientists record what the centenarians eat, what they don't and how they've handled stress. Children, siblings and spouses are also part of the research, to see what makes their elders different from people who share their genes, or their environments.

So far, centenarians have shattered myths, and raised more questions about extreme old age.

``We have 100 year-olds who have smoked all their lives; we have 100-year-olds who are fat,'' said Dr. Nir Barzilai, a Yeshiva University researcher seeking longevity genes.

Researchers know for certain few 100-year-olds have had heart attacks, developed Alzheimer's or diabetes.

``We're constantly disproving the idea of the older you get, the sicker you get,'' said Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Harvard Medical School. ``They are avoiding or delaying these diseases. We've got to find out how and why they do that.''

Researchers know that generally, the siblings of centenarians tend to live long themselves; siblings of centenarians are four times more likely than the greater population to reach their 90s, and are eight times as likely to get to 100.

So far, genes that extend life have only been identified among insects. When the right human genes are discovered, researchers insist, the goal will not be to create an elixir to prevent aging. The point will be to help everyone live healthier lives by developing treatments for the diseases that kill people well before they reach 100.

Other changes in medicine have already contributed to there being more 100-year-olds than ever. Born at the turn of the century, more such babies survived, thanks to vaccines, safe water and better public health. The average life expectancy at the beginning of the 1900s of 46 has nearly doubled now; 74 for men, 80 for women. The world's oldest person, documented by birth records, died at 122 in 1997.

Famous centenarians have stood out in recent years. Entertainer George Burns showed the funny side of pushing 100. The Delany sisters, who both lived well past a century, achieved fame with their ``Having Our Say'' memoir, which inspired a Broadway play and television movie. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina would be the first 100-year-old senator at the end of his term in 2002.

There's a certain pride, too. A 100th birthday often warrants a photo and article in the hometown paper. When Willard Scott of NBC's Today Show first started announcing 100th birthdays in 1980, there were few letters; now, he gets more than 200 requests per week.

Centenarians promise to be even hardier if they avoid those life-ending diseases. Many already are. Just half live in nursing homes; the rest live on their own, or with family.

LaFauci, a former traveling salesman, says people are as shocked by his independence as they are by his gift of gab. They mistake him for 60.

``Mentally I'm sharp,'' he said. ``I can hold a conversation with anyone.''

There are discoveries researchers haven't explained. Centenarian women outnumber men, but are sicker and more frail. Women who have a child after 40 are five times as likely to reach the century mark than other women.

Centenarians are all races. Some farm, others surf the Internet. A comfortable, wealthy, pampered life doesn't necessarily guarantee long life. Children of slaves have lived to 100. Barzilai studies Jews who have survived concentration camps.

The only thing researchers have found they share is that many had a family member who lived long as well.

Yet some research is showing that genes don't hold all the keys. Perls, a 40-year-old doctor who has studied centenarians for the last seven years, said centenarians score lower on a psychological test for neurotic conditions or traits. They don't dwell on things, and they're able to move on quickly.

``I wasn't one to run to the doctor with every little pain,'' said Rose, who put more stock in the Bible study she continues to this day at her Iowa retirement home. ``We have vespers, and I go in my wheelchair.

``Paying attention to the physical is important, but we also need to have a spiritual life too.''