Individuals who live past 95 years of age have similar lifestyles to the rest of the population regarding smoking, drinking, diet and exercise, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University revealed in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. As far as longevity is concerned, it really does seem that nature matters more than nurture, the authors explained.

Dr. Nir Barzilai and team interviewed 477 people aged at least 95 years, they were all Ashkenazi Jews and lived independently. 75% of them were female. Ashkenazi Jews are genetically similar to each other because they descend from a small founder group – this makes it easier to identify gene differences if any are present.

They were asked to describe their lifestyles when they were 70 years old. The researchers explained that at that age, one is most likely to gather data on their lifestyles throughout most of their adult lives.

The researchers also gathered data on their height, weight, BMI (body mass index), alcohol consumption, smoking status, exercise and physical activity, and whether their diet was low fat, low calorie and/or low salt.

They compared these people with 3,164 others who had been born at about the same time – these others had been examined between 1971 and 1875 while taking part in NHANES I (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). They are referred to as the control group.

The researchers found no overall difference in BMI, diet, smoking status, and physical activity between those aged over 95 and the others.

Below are some figures the researchers reported:

  • 27% of the women aged 95+ and 27% of females in the control group tried to eat a low-calorie diet.
  • 24% of the 95+ people consumed alcohol every day, compared to 22% of the general population.
  • 43% of the male 95+ participants said they did regular moderate exercise, compared to 57% of males in the comparison group.

Dr. Barzilai said:

“In previous studies of our centenarians, we’ve identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol. This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Some difference was noticed regarding overweight and obesity. The overweight 95+ participants were not as fat as the overweight people in the control group, even though the percentage of people who were overweight was similar in both groups. 4.5% of the male centenarians were obese compared to 12.1% of controls, and 9.6% of the centenarian females were obese compared to 16.2% of the controls.

The researchers stress that healthy lifestyles do help you live longer if you are not genetically designed to have a very long life. In other words, for some people their genes protect them from bad habits, but this is not the case for everybody.

In 2010 there were an estimated 425,000 people aged at least 95 years in the USA, out of 40 million aged 65+.

Dr. Barzilai said:

“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.”

When asked why they thought they had lived so long, the participants answered (these are subjective answers):

  • One third said it was due to a family history of longevity.
  • 20% thought it was due to physical activity.
  • 19% believed it was due to a positive attitude.
  • 12% said it was due to an active or busy life.
  • 15% thought it was due to less drinking or smoking.
  • 8% thought they were simply lucky.
  • 6% thought their religion or spirituality played a role.

Written by Christian Nordqvist