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U of U Researcher Studies Factors that Determine Longevity, Health and Risk of Disease

Aug. 31, 2004 — We all want to be long-lived. But how?

Centenarians, those living to age 100, offer possible answers-cycling, smoking cigars, a positive attitude, staying close to loved ones, a glass of wine daily. However, according to University of Utah researcher Ken R. Smith, explanations offered by those celebrating their 100th birthdays can be misleading. “Those who engaged in these same behaviors and still died never had the chance to be interviewed,” Smith says.

Smith, a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies and an investigator in Population Sciences at Huntsman Cancer Institute, is principal investigator for a new University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute project, the “Utah Study of Fertility, Longevity, and Aging” (FLAG). The $5.5 million, five-year research grant, funded by the National Institute on Aging, will help identify whether environmental and genetic factors are associated with extreme longevity that runs in families and how these same genes may affect the mortality risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure as well as diseases associated with aging, primarily cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“The purpose of this study is to identify pathways to healthy exceptional longevity,” Smith explains.

Smith and other members of the nine-member research team will use the Utah Population Database (UPDB) to better understand the genetic and environmental factors that lead to exceptionally long lives. The researchers are interested in studying families where members of multiple generations live to extreme ages, such as 95 or 100. They plan to study 1,000 participants-long-lived parents, their children and their nieces and nephews, some from families with as many as 10 generations.

“The Utah Population Database is invaluable because it allows us to look at ancestors over many generations for a given individual. But we also benefit by having large family pedigrees from which to study, given Utah’s high fertility rate,” Smith explains. “What’s important is the volume of informative relatives-those connected by blood because of a common ancestor. Utah is ideal for studying genetic aspects of familial longevity given that there were many different, unrelated founders of Utah that generated a large population with very little inbreeding.”

A problem with studying exceptionally long-lived persons is there is no obvious control group, Smith says. “The people you want to compare them to are all dead. So, a novel part of this study is that we are also recruiting their children, age 50 to 80. We will compare the adult children’s health and functioning to their first cousins, but these first cousins will be the children of parents who did not have exceptional survival. An important part of the comparison is that the children of the exceptionally long-lived and their first cousins share characteristics in terms of genetics, social class and religion, which will help us to isolate specific genetic, medical and psychosocial factors that make them different. We will compare them on numerous aspects of their health associated with aging, including memory, lung capacity, muscle strength and cholesterol.”

The study’s objective is not only to determine factors that affect remarkable longevity, but also to identify indicators that contribute to health. “We don’t just want to find ways to keep sick people alive for a long time,” Smith explains. “We’re really talking about healthy, exceptional longevity or survival. We want to find candidate genes that can be useful for developing clinical or pharmaceutical interventions that would promote successful aging. Or we might make potential recommendations on social, lifestyle and environmental factors that promote long and healthy lives. We already know some factors that contribute to longevity-not smoking, controlling weight and getting exercise. What we don’t know is how much of these behaviors will actually get you to these phenomenally old ages.”