When comedian Stephen Wright said, "I intend to live forever — so far, so good," he may have been on to something. A pill that will help people live to be 100 will soon be ready. The pill promises not only to let people live to be centenarians but also to keep them in good health so they can truly enjoy their extended life spans, free from diseases that plague old age.
The research team that paved the way for developing the pill, led by Dr. Nir Barzilai, a director of the Institute for Aging Research and Professor of Medicine and Molecular Genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, began by looking at the DNA of a select group of centenarians. The group was composed of 500 healthy Ashkenazi Jews with an average age of 100 living in New York, and the researchers set out to determine whether they shared traits that could account for their long lives.
After examining two million genetic markers, the researchers pinpointed three "super genes" common to members of the group that are key to two things: 1) extending life beyond 100; and 2) preventing diseases common to old age. Two of the three genes enhance the production of HDL (good cholesterol), thereby reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease, while the third staves off diabetes. Those lucky enough to possess DNA that strongly features all three genes are also 80 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's.
The study ruled out both fitness and dietary influences. In fact, to their amazement, the researchers found a third of the group were either life-long heavy smokers or were obese.
In a statement to the Daily Mail, Barzilai said, "Thirty percent of them were obese or overweight and 30 percent smoked two packs of cigarettes (a day) for more than 40 years. Because our centenarians have longevity genes, they are protected against many of the effects of the environment. That's why they do whatever they want to do and they get through anyhow."
Those who possess the longevity genes have a one in 500 chance of living to be 100, while those less fortunate have a one in 10,000 chance. By way of comparison, a child born in 2007 in the United States has a life expectancy of 78.
Barzilai believes the study findings will prove to be a boon to everyone, opening the door to lengthening average life expectancy while cutting illness in old age. "The advantage of finding a gene that involves longevity is that we can just develop a drug that will imitate exactly what this gene is doing. The biology we're trying to uncover is that if we can imitate that, then long life can be really terrific."
Barzilai revealed that several laboratories are currently racing to create a pill duplicating the effects of the three genes that promote a long healthy life. He expects a pill will be ready for testing in three years.