Eat, Drink and be Merry? You could live to 100!

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 5, 2011 – I’m usually more interested in the Olympics, track & field and technology than lifestyle studies, but there’s a new one that’s a doozy:

“Apparently, you can eat fried foods and ice cream, drink, smoke, and skip the gym and still plan your 100th birthday party. But probably only if you have the right genes . . . “

That’s part of a WebMD.com story on a new study from the Institute for Aging Research from the Yeshiva University medical school in New York, released in advance of publication in the August issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The astonishing results of the study showed that for those who have a genetic make-up which favors long life, there isn’t much to stand in the way except maybe obesity. The research project profiled 477 Ashkenazic (Eastern European-origin) Jews aged 95-109 who were all living independently, and compared their lifestyle habits to a group of 3,164 individuals born around the same time, but who provided their data as of age 70 to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1971 and 1974 (and most of whom have passed away). The highlights:

Exercise: About 43% of the 95-to-109-year-old men exercised regularly, compared to 57% of the comparison (1970s) group. About 47% of the older women exercised regularly, compared to 44% of the younger comparison group.

Obesity: Some 48% of men in the test group were overweight or obese, compared to 55% of the comparison group from the 1970s. Among women, about 44% of the test group was overweight or obese, compared with 41% of the younger comparison group.

Smoking: Of the older test group, 60% of the men and 30% of the women had smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, compared to 75% of the men and 26% of the women in the younger group back in the 1970s.

Drinking: Daily alcohol consumption was reported at 24% of the Jewish group (no report on the number drinking Manischewitz) compared to 22% of the 1970s men. Both the Jewish women and 1970s women drank much less: 12% for the test group drank daily compared to 11% in the 1970s.

Low-Calorie Diets: About the same for both groups in both sexes: 21% of both groups of men had tried such diets, with 27% of both groups of women also trying them.

The report’s conclusion was “People with exceptional longevity are not distinct in terms of lifestyle factors from the general population, suggesting that people with exceptional longevity may interact with environmental factors differently than others.”

Even the study’s leader, Dr. Nir Barzilai, seemed shocked by the results, noting in a press release that “Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity. We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan.”

Fat chance, doc.

Barzilai noted that two-thirds of those in the study group “have a family history of longevity.” So there you have it.

So what to make of lifestyle choices now? Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University, who has reviewed the new study, but was not involved in it, probably got the balance right when he told WebMD.com:

”What [the study] tells me is, the average bunch of us has the genetic makeup – in the presence of good health habits – that should get us to our late 80s.”

The current average lifespan in the U.S. is just about 80 years, and if we don’t abuse ourselves, Perls thinks we might get to 88 or so. But beyond that? It’s in the genes.

My grandmother made it to 102, so I’m headed to the deli; there’s a pastrami sandwich with my name on it!

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

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