Geriatric Health

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Faith Henderson was born in 1900, beginning an extraordinarily long, active, and healthy life. A 1922 graduate of the University of California Berkeley, she was homemaker for most of her life, caring for three daughters, ten grandchildren, and more than two dozen great- and great-great-grandchildren.

She and her husband, Pat, traveled extensively in Europe, and they lived in Japan for a year. She played golf, taught Sunday school, and loved sports. When the Anaheim Angels won their first World Series in 2002, Mrs. Henderson, then 102, was sitting in the mayor’s box.

She spent the last 18 years of her life at the Morningside Assisted Living Community in Orange County, California, where she was involved in many social activities, from music to bingo to cribbage. She died in 2009 at the age of 108.

What was Faith Henderson’s secret to such a long life? Well, longevity did run in her family—her mother and sisters all lived into their nineties. Asked about it once, however, she credited nutrition: “I eat well,” she said. “I eat a good diet.”

Mrs. Henderson was one of the approximately two thousand centenarians and their family members who have participated in the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University School of Medicine. This groundbreaking, multidisciplinary research effort—the largest centenarian study in the world—is trying to unlock the secrets of successful aging.

The study has found that most centenarians live not only long lives, but also—like Mrs. Henderson—healthy and active lives. “Centenarians raise the bar for the rest of us,” says Study Director Thomas Perls, a physician and associate professor at the medical school. “They make living to one’s mid-eighties look like not such a big deal. We are trying to find out what sets these individuals apart. We are trying to learn from them so that the rest of us can age not just longer but, more importantly, better.”

Searching for longevity genes

The study, which began in 1994 in eight Boston-area towns, is now international, enrolling centenarians across the United States and around the world. Included in the study is the world’s largest sample of supercentenarians—those aged 110 or older—totaling more than one hundred and twenty (about one per every five million people) of these rare and remarkable individuals. Dr. Perls and his colleagues recently published findings showing that people living to 110 and older are generally cognitively and physically independent right up to the average age of 107 years. “The supercentenarians are the crème-de-la-crème when it comes to slow aging, resistance to age-related diseases, and the potential for discovering protective genes and other factors,” says Dr. Perls.

The New England Centenarian Study has compiled extensive medical, family, and social histories of participating individuals. Researchers examine all aspects of the subjects’ lives, from their lifestyles to their genetic makeup. They are identifying the behavior choices that make the biggest differences—smoking, diet, sleep, and exercise. They also have found that centenarians have a genetic advantage: “These individuals harbor longevity-enabling genes, which let them delay or escape age-related diseases,” Dr. Perls says.

Protected from age-related diseases

All of the centenarians and their relatives who participate in the study are volunteers. “We have excellent subject retention,” Dr. Perls says. “These people are very, very proud of their ages and also immensely curious about how they got to be so lucky.”

Each year, researchers at the New England Centenarian Study distribute questionnaires to the participants. From the questionnaires, investigators learn the cognitive and physical status, health history, and family history of longevity of the centenarians and their family members. A study researcher visits the participants to collect blood samples that are analyzed at a genetics laboratory. The study also has access to the individuals’ medical records.

To gain broader insights, the Centenarian Study researchers work closely with other investigators at Boston University School of Medicine, including specialists at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Center for Regenerative Medicine. Using advanced bioengineering techniques, the research teams are starting to determine the mechanisms behind the genes that protect centenarians from age-related diseases.

“It’s one thing to identify the genes, but it is another thing to figure out what the genes are actually doing,” Dr. Perls says. “Once you do that and identify the pathways they are influencing, then you can think about how you might be able to influence those pathways with a drug.”

An urgent mission

Today, the burden of disease associated with aging threatens the well being of societies all over the world.

“We have 75 million baby boomers in the United States aging together. Many of them have been grappling for some time with helping their parents with age-related issues—issues of physical and cognitive function and transitions,” Dr. Perls says. “And now the baby boomers are starting to look in the mirror and wonder what the future holds for them.”

Without major advances in the prevention or treatment of age-related diseases, the baby boom generation’s transition to old age will overwhelm the American health care system. While many studies are being performed with lower organisms to study the mechanisms of aging and why aging predisposes us to diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart attack, stroke, and cancer, the New England Centenarian Study is one of the few that allows for the study of human exceptional longevity.

A gift that will last generations

The basic work of the New England Centenarian Study is funded by the National Institute on Aging and private foundations. To broaden the study’s scope and to accelerate the pace of discovery, we depend on philanthropic support.

The scientific discovery potential of the data and biospecimens collected from the centenarians is tremendous—but barely taken advantage of. With additional private funding we could carry out many critical studies that are just waiting to happen. “I am certain that if we had the funds, we and our collaborators both at BU and beyond could make discoveries from the DNA and other samples provided by the centenarians that would bring us much closer to markedly increasing our health spans,” explains Dr. Perls.

Donor support would, among other things, allow us to greatly increase our subject recruitment efforts, with an emphasis on enrolling subjects age 105 years and older, and to establish a bio-repository, so that the DNA, cell lines, and data can be made available to researchers from numerous disciplines at Boston University School of Medicine and beyond. And with additional philanthropic support, we could hire junior faculty to advance existing research initiatives and launch new ones.

From the world’s oldest individuals, we are learning the secrets of successful aging. Your support is essential to our research moving forward—so that future generations may live longer, healthier lives.

Sample giving opportunities

  • Create and name an endowed professorship for the faculty of the program: $1.25 million for an assistant professor, $2.5 million for a full professor
  • Endow a research fund: $100,000
  • Endow a scholarship for a BUSM student: $100,000
  • Endow a postdoctoral fellowship: $100,000
  • Create a current-use fellowship award: $10,000
  • Provide unrestricted support as a member of the BUSM Dean’s Club: $1,500 and above