Holding back the years
28 August 2014

Want to live to 115 years old? You’d better go back in time and choose your parents then! I think the greatest influence on our longevity is our genetic inheritance. It’s true life expectancy is rising all the time. A child born in the UK today can expect to live to around 80 years of age, and that’s 8 years more than his or her parents born in the 1970’s. Better housing, better healthcare, and an all-round improved standard of living have made this possible. But when you look at those who live to their 100th birthday and beyond there’s something else going on other than just central heating and taking tablets, that has allowed them to grow old so gracefully. It has to be their genes.

Scientists in Amsterdam have recently made a gene-map of one of the oldest women to have lived. The lady, who has remained anonymous, died at the age of 115. Though she was born prematurely, and wasn’t expected to survive, she lived a long and healthy life, moving into a nursing home at the age of 105. What astonished scientists after her death was that she seemed extraordinarily young, had no signs of Alzheimer’s, and even before she died when she had a mental agility test they found she had the mind-set of a women in her 60’s.  They are now busy trying to work out what aspects of her genetic inheritance made her so resistant to the effects of ageing. Now obviously that won’t be of much direct help to you and me, but who knows what new medications might arise from a better understanding of the very complex, and as yet, mysterious, ageing process.

Obesity, having a body mass index over 30, according government figures, reduces life expectancy by around 9 years. Most people would also agree that carrying excess weight also makes us look older. Reducing our weight back to normal can of course go a long way to regaining those “lost” 9 years. We may not be able to change our parents, but at least we can change our lifestyle. But it’s all about balance isn’t it? A few months ago, I had given a talk to a group of older people at a local community centre, and I had spoken, among other things, of the dangers of alcohol. When we opened up to questions from the audience the first question was from a very sprightly 97 year old lady. She wanted to know whether, for the sake of her health, she should stop her daily routine, which she’d adopted some 30 years ago, of having a tot of whisky before bed each evening. I couldn’t help but smile. What would you have told her? I think she must have chosen her parents well.