The Secrets of the Supercentenarians Scientists Seek To Unlock Key to Longer Lives

How is it possible to live more than a century yet still remain healthy and lucid? Scientists believe there may be a genetic link. The Kahn siblings in America, aged 108, 104 and 100, are helping researchers to unlock those secrets.

Helen is 108 years old. She hates salads, vegetables, getting up early and just about everything that has to do with a healthy lifestyle. She loves rare hamburgers, chocolate, cocktails and nightlife in New York: all the exotic restaurants, Broadway shows, movie theaters -- where she recently saw "Iron Man 2" -- and the Metropolitan Opera. That's where she attended her first opera, "Samson et Delila," in 1918. It was a present from her father for her 17th birthday.

She also likes to smoke, of course: "I've been smoking for more than 80 years, all day long, every day. That's a whole lot of cigarettes," admits Helen, who has always been called "Happy" since she was a child. Then she giggles as she falls back into her soft armchair. This 108-year-old woman is so small and delicate that she almost seems to disappear into the plush furniture. She is wearing pleated pants, a pink cardigan with ruffles, a matching shawl and a number of pearl necklaces. Her short light-brown curls are perfectly blow-dried and she is wearing rouge and lipstick. Her skin is soft and nearly spotless, and her brown eyes sparkle merrily behind her glasses.

Since she had a stroke five years ago, her pronunciation has been slightly slurred. But her mind is alert, her curiosity as strong as ever, and her memory is often better than that of her 37-year-old Filipino caretaker. Happy is currently nursing a cold and should take it easy -- so she is receiving guests in her apartment on Park Avenue, and not at the Indian place around the corner or at one of her other favorite restaurants. "But on Saturday," says Happy, as she sits up again and beams, "on Saturday, we'll meet with my brother Irving for lunch. Okay?"

Around the World at 84

Helen Faith Keane Reichert, born Nov. 11, 1901 on Manhattan's Lower East Side as the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, is a certified psychologist, a fashion expert, a former TV presenter and a professor emeritus at New York University. She was married to a cardiologist and has no children. When her husband died 25 years ago at the age of 88, she decided, at age 84, to travel around the world -- to Ireland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China, Japan and Australia. It was her way of coming to terms with her loss. "The only place I didn't visit was India," she says, "but I'd like to go there."

In her golden years, Happy, the indestructible woman, has attracted the attention of scientists -- together with her brother Irving, 104, and Peter, 100, and her sister Lee, who died in 2005 at the age of 102.

The world's presumably oldest quartet of siblings has provided blood samples and submitted to hours of interviews with age researchers from Boston and New York. These studies aim to resolve questions that have become increasingly pressing for the aging societies of industrialized countries: How do some lucky individuals manage to live 100 years and longer -- and still remain so incredibly healthy and active? How can it be that centenarians are generally less of a burden on the health system than ordinary mortals?

Life Expectancy Keeps Rising

Demographers have calculated that the life expectancy of people in the developed world has risen for the past 170 years by an average of three months per year. In Germany, it is currently 82 years for women and 77 years for men -- and there's no end in sight to this trend. How can we prevent this increasingly elderly population from being plagued by the typical afflictions of old age, including protracted illnesses and medical conditions such as arteriosclerosis, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's? Do the lives of individuals who have lived over a century provide recipes to combat the impending infirmities of a rapidly aging society?

There are some 50,000 people over the age of 100 in the United States, and just under 6,000 in Germany. One in seven million even live to the age of 110 and longer -- and there is even a special word for these living ancients: supercentenarians. Research teams worldwide are searching for centenarians and supercentenarians to comb through their genes, medical records and life stories for explanations.

Israeli physician Nir Barzilai and his staff at the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have asked hundreds of centenarians hundreds of questions, including details of their living circumstances, nutrition, alcohol consumption, smoking, physical activity, sleep, education, status and spirituality -- all in the hope of finding commonalities.

'No Pattern' to Healthy Old Age

The results are sobering: "There is no pattern," says Barzilai, 54. "The usual recommendations for a healthy life -- not smoking, not drinking, plenty of exercise, a well-balanced diet, keeping your weight down -- they apply to us average people," says the researcher, "but not to them. Centenarians are in a class of their own." He pulls spreadsheets out of a drawer, adjusts his glasses and reads out loud: "At the age of 70, a total of 37 percent of our subjects were, according to their own statements, overweight, and 8 percent were obese; 37 percent were smokers, on average for 31 years; 44 percent said that they only moderately exercised; 20 percent never exercised."

But Barzilai is quick to point out that people shouldn't start questioning the importance of a healthy lifestyle: "Today's changes in lifestyle do in fact contribute to whether someone dies at the age of 85 or already at age 75." But in order to reach the age of 100, says the researcher, you need a special genetic make-up. "These people age differently. Slower. They end up dying of the same diseases that we do -- but 30 years later and usually quicker, without languishing for long periods."

Other researchers on aging have come to similar conclusions: "I'm slightly overweight and I don't get much exercise," says Stefan Schreiber, 48, head of the Healthy Aging research group at the University of Kiel, which has also conducted studies with centenarians. "If I firmly believed that it would make a difference, I would change that."

No Retirement at 104

Obesity, smoking and an extremely low level of physical activity certainly don't promote good health. But the interviews have revealed no magic formula for how we should live, eat and behave to reach a ripe old age: "None of the centenarians went on an algae diet," he quips. He has noticed one thing that they have in common, though, says Schreiber: "Many of them have only kissed one woman in their lives" -- kissed, mind you, he says again, and laughs. "Perhaps that is the essence of why someone becomes 100?"

Happy's younger brother Irving, 104, can be found on weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. in a parallel street located three blocks away from his sister's apartment, in his office on the 22nd floor of a skyscraper on Madison Avenue. Kahn Brothers is the name of the investment firm that he and two of his three sons founded in 1978. His eldest son -- today age 72 -- retired five years ago.

Irving Kahn, a small, plump man with his hair precisely parted to the right, and with reading glasses and a hearing aid, is sitting in front of a flat screen, and on his desk lie piles of paper and a large magnifying glass. He has no intention of quitting: "I'm interested in a wide range of industries and technologies," he explains, "and I'm a passionate reader. That's why being an investor is the perfect job for me." Since his wife's death 14 years ago, he has actually worked even more: "I simply wasn't able to find anyone else as interesting as the woman I shared a bed with for 65 years."

After breaking off his studies and working for years as a teaching assistant under the legendary economist Benjamin Graham at Columbia University, Kahn got his debut on Wall Street in 1928. Shortly thereafter, as the Great Depression gripped the country, he was relatively fortunate, he says: "My salary was reduced to $60 a week. I remember my boss asking me: Why do you look so happy? And I replied: I thought you were going to fire me."

'Stay In Motion, Be Open'

What is his personal recipe for living to the age of 100? Irving raises his thumb, index and middle finger into the air and starts pontificating: "First, you need a nutritious diet, with a lot of vegetables and salads. Second, get plenty of fresh air. Third, don't drink, don't smoke. I drink at most one glass of wine every three months."

His ring finger and pinkie also shoot into the air as the old expert starts talking up a storm: "Fourth, you have to always stay in motion, be open, get to know people from all over the world. And, fifth, have a lot of interests and learn things that you can't do yet -- that keeps you young!"

And what about his oldest sister? Irving shakes his head and murmurs to himself. "Sure," he says, a bit miffed, "that's an old joke in our family. Happy loves to have her picture taken with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other."

Irving's fourth and fifth commandments have been scientifically proven, however: "We've found a few interesting personality traits," says Tom Perls, 50, from Boston University, who directs the New England Centenarian Study, the largest research project of its kind in the world, with some 2,600 participants. "Our subjects are generally extroverted and gregarious and have a stable social network."

Furthermore, he says that they aren't neurotic -- in other words, they don't bemoan life's difficulties; they are masters of the art of letting go. Stefan Schreiber, the medical researcher in Kiel, concurs: "This alertness of the mind, the openness, it's remarkable -- especially when you consider that these people haven't had easy lives. They have experienced war, hunger and poverty."

Is it possible to extend our lives with high spirits and optimism? Or are centenarians inherently blessed with a cheerful disposition, making them less susceptible to stress and disease? "We don't know how much of this is genetically determined," says Perls. "But we learn how useful it is to come out of your shell."

"I honestly have no idea why I've grown so old," says Peter, 100, the baby of the Kahn family. He lived "absolutely normally," never paid a great deal of attention to his health and never thought much about his age, he says.

Like his sister Happy, Peter also Americanized his last name. As Peter Keane he pursued a career in show business -- as a photographer and cinematographer in Hollywood. He was there when "Gone with the Wind" was filmed in the late 1930s. And when the young Judy Garland sang the legendary "Over the Rainbow" in "The Wizard of Oz," Peter says that the entire crew broke out in tears.

Genes Predict Longevity

Physically speaking, the youngest is the frailest of the three. He went blind three years ago, and he has had to wear a neck brace ever since he took a bad fall. He rarely leaves his house in Westport, Connecticut. His favorite activity is sitting in front of the fireplace in the living room and listening to mystery stories, along with scientific and works of historical fiction.

Peter's wife Beth, 66, with whom he has been married for 26 years, takes care of him and directs him when he blindly gropes his way around the house with his walker. He could also sit in a wheelchair and allow himself to be pushed, which would be easier and faster -- but he would rather walk.

They met at a party thrown by some friends, recalls Beth. She didn't notice his age, she says, and smiles. "I only thought: What a charming man!" Now Peter is also smiling. He doesn't understand much about genetic research, he says, "but the researchers maintain that I have unusual genes."

A few weeks ago, the Boston research group working under Perls caused quite a stir worldwide: In the academic journal Science, the researchers reported that they had discovered the 150 genetic variants in the genome of centenarians. They said that they could use these genes to predict a person's longevity with 77-percent accuracy. In the article, they wrote that the variants were grouped in 19 typical genetic signatures.

A Milestone in Aging Research

Centenarians enjoy only a negligibly lower risk of developing age-related conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, Perls goes on to explain, but they have genetically determined protection mechanisms that delay the outbreak of these disorders and foster a longer life.

Academic colleagues and journalists hailed this study as a milestone in aging research -- but it has also met with criticism. There was a technical glitch during the assessment, which rendered 10 percent of the data useless. This doesn't appear to call in to question the results of the study, however. "Our group of subjects is fortunately so large that we can eliminate the questionable data," says Perls, "and the results nevertheless remain extremely robust."

Other research groups are now rushing to replicate his results with centenarians -- including the German team in Kiel. "Perls' idea is smart and sexy," says Schreiber. "If it can be substantiated, then this would indeed be a breakthrough."

Just Taking A Walk

Age researcher Barzilai in New York is even thinking one step further: "First of all, we need to understand how these 150 variants protect their owners from diseases," he says, "so we can develop therapeutic approaches." Barzilai says that he hopes this will allow doctors to control many age-related illnesses.

Happy has now recovered from her cold. She spent five days in her apartment, but she was going a bit stir crazy with boredom. Now she is meeting her brother Irving for lunch at a restaurant on Central Park; they both arrived with caretakers. "I feel like I've been cooped up for two weeks," says Happy, while she relishes her crab cakes with potatoes and afterwards tucks away a piece of chocolate pie.

In the meantime, her brother eats a mixed salad. He shakes his head, congenially. "My weekends are always very exciting too," he explains, "I play tennis, go swimming and jogging -- but only in my memories!"

After the meal, he wants to return home to his textbooks. His sister gazes out the window. The sun is shining, crowds are bustling along the sidewalks -- it's a delightful summer day in New York City.

"Let's take a walk in the park, Irving!" says Happy.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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