For more than a decade oldest-old Danes and Americans and their children have been investigated in the Long Life Family Study. The project, in which D-IAS Chair on Health Professor Kaare Christensen and his group from SDU are the only non-Americans among six partners, is aiming to understand why some people reach very high ages in good health. Now the researchers in the study has raised no less than 68 million dollars from NIH to continue the study and include the grandchildren of the oldest-old individuals.
AGE AND HEREDITY: It is a success story. The exceptional health and survival tracks over generations. For once, this is medical research with a positive starting point and not a problem to be solved.
In 2006, the researchers visited families who at that time had two or more living siblings over 90 years, and both the siblings and their children were included in the study. Prior to these visits, the researchers had made a tremendous detective work of reviewing church books. In total, almost 5000 individuals participated in the study – more than 1200 from Denmark.
What are the biological, behavioral and demographic characteristics of these longevity-enriched families?
This is the key question that Kaare Christensen, professor of epidemiology at the Danish Aging Research Center at SDU, and his research colleagues are trying to answer.
Since 2006, they have examined the participants and their children twice.
We have now received a new US grant to conduct a third visit and to now also include the grandchildren in some of the families. Our preliminary studies suggest that the good health is tracking three generations, and including the grandchildren will increase our chances to identify the underlying mechanisms
Professor Kaare Christensen says.
During the 13 years the project has been underway, the researchers have – as expected – not found a single “magic bullet” or “the secret of a long and good life”, but several of the pieces in the very large puzzle of a long and healthy life.
The pieces are both behavioral and biological.
-On the one hand, it turns out that even spouses of members of the long-living families outperform the average. Like the descendants of these long-livers, they, too, have better survival and fewer lifestyle diseases.
-On the other hand, the explanation is also genetic. One of our theories is that these families have some advantageous gene variants that are very rare. That they have some beneficial mutations and molecular mechanisms that we’re now searching for
Kaare Christensen explains.
The grandchildren will be examined in the same way as their parents and their grandparents, namely with questionnaires, physical examinations, memory tasks and blood drawing after fasting.
The more than 1200 Danes involved in the project come from 76 different families. The number of grandchildren in these families is very high, so we can only include the most informative. It’s our experience that the families are very keen to participate. After all, they are selected because they are special in a positive way. Because they live long and healthy lives
Kaare Christensen says, adding:
To examine 100-year-olds to find out why they have done so well is equivalent to examining mountaineers who have just climbed Mount Everest. It would have been good to also have examined them before they embarked on the journey.
So, we want to find and examine individuals who are probably going to get very old in good health. We can find them in these families and, so, hopefully create useful knowledge for the future.
The Long Life Family Study is a collaboration between SDU and the US universities: Washington University, University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University, Boston University and University of Minnesota, as well as the US National Institute of Health (which funds the study).