SFU café ponders the secrets of Super Seniors

Geneticist studying why certain seniors live so long in good health will outline findings in Surrey

Simon Fraser University geneticist Angela Brooks-Wilson.

Simon Fraser University geneticist Angela Brooks-Wilson.

Why do some seniors live disease-free long into their golden years? Do they lack susceptibility factors that contribute to disease or do they have an enhanced ability to resist disease?

Simon Fraser University geneticist Angela Brooks-Wilson will shed new light on so-called “Super Seniors” at SFU’s next Café Scientifique in Surrey on Nov. 20.

Brooks-Wilson is leading a study involving more than 500 seniors between the ages of 85 and 105 to identify “healthy-aging” genes that contribute to exceptional long-term good health.

The Super Seniors were identified in Metro Vancouver between 2002-2007. To qualify they had to be at least 85 and never have been diagnosed with cancer, pulmonary disease, Alzheimers, diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

“They were tough to find,” concedes Brooks-Wilson. “Fewer than half of Canadians live to the age of 85, with only a minority of those achieving the age free of major age-related disease.”

Though the study is focused on the genetics of healthy aging, information gathered on the lifestyles of Super Seniors showed some interesting (though not necessarily surprising) differences from that of the general population. There are also some new findings that support the idea that some Super Seniors have protective genetic factors.

The research team also measured the lengths of the telomeres of some Super Seniors (telomeres are structures at the ends of chromosomes that, like the plastic ends on shoelaces, stop them from fraying).

Brooks-Wilson and her team were surprised to find that the Super Seniors telomeres were not longer than those of other individuals their age. While the telomeres of random middle-aged people varied substantially from person to person, Super Seniors’ were all very similar to each other in terms of telomere length. Brooks-Wilson theorizes that the Super Seniors may have an “optimal telomere length” that may contribute to their healthy aging.

“Part, but not all, of the extended “healthspan” of these individuals is expected to be due to avoidance of lifestyle and environmental risk factors. Genetic variants found to be associated with healthy aging, or associated with protection against specific common age-related diseases, may give us biological clues about how to optimize the healthy lifespan of the general population,” explains Brooks-Wilson, a professor in SFU’s Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology (BPK).

The Genetics of Healthy Aging Study is led by Brooks-Wilson together with researchers in genomics, genetics, gerontology, bioinformatics and cancer research, and is being carried out at the Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency.

Brooks-Wilson will elaborate on the findings at the third event in the 2013 Café Scientifique series, to be held at the Surrey City Centre Library Nov. 20 from 7–8:30 p.m., free and open to the public. The SFU Surrey-TD Community Engagement Centre and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) sponsor the series.

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