Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Centenarian Offspring: A Model of Successful Aging1

Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Centenarian Offspring: A Model of Successful Aging1

Article excerpt

The New England Centenarian Study (NECS), which was started in 1995, is a population-based nationwide study of centenarians based at Boston University Medical Center. With significant evidence pointing to a strong familial component to longevity the NECS expanded its recruitment to include the offspring of centenarians and comparison groups. Similarly the Ashkenazi Jewish Centenarian Study (a component of which is the Longevity Genes Project [LGP]) based at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, focuses on centenarians of Ashkenazi Jewish descent and their family members, including the offspring of centenarians.

Numerous centenarian studies have demonstrated a substantial familial component to longevity that is related to both genes and exposure. Parents of centenarians live longer; the mean age of survival for the mothers and fathers of centenarians is 10 to 15 years longer than the average life expectancy for the time (Perls, Bochen, Freeman, Alpert, & Silver, 1999). Siblings of centenarians also live longer (Willcox, Willcox, He, Curb, & Suzuki, 2006); female siblings are 8 times as likely and male siblings are 17 times as likely to live to age 100 compared to the average for their United States birth cohort (Perls et al., 2002). Overall, this evidence suggests that longevity runs in families, and, thus, the offspring of centenarians may share with their parents many of the traits that are conducive to longevity.


Whereas most centenarians compress the time that they experience disability into a relatively short period of time at the end of their lives, at age 100 and older most of them are in the frail phase of their lives (Evert, Lawler, Bogan, & Perls, 2003). Therefore, many of the physiologic and biochemical characteristics of these extremely old individuals reflect changes associated with the end of life rather than characteristics associated with the ability to achieve exceptional old age. In contrast, investigation of centenarian offspring who are in their 70s and 80s likely better reflects phenotypic characteristics conducive to achieving exceptional longevity.

In addition, centenarian studies pose the challenge of whom to use as controls. In some studies, controls who are not birth cohort matched (but died at younger ages) are used; however, this choice of controls is prone to bias because secular trends that lead to longevity in one birth cohort may be different in a later birth cohort. Such problems do not exist among the septuagenarian and octogenarian offspring of the centenarians for whom birth-cohort referent groups are available, and prospectively collected data can delineate healthy aging versus characteristics associated with the end of life.


Two types of comparison groups have been used in centenarian offspring research to date. The first group is comprised of the spouses of the centenarian offspring (Barzilai, Gabriely Gabriely Iankowitz, & Sorkin, 2001). Spouses are likely to share similar environments, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and life-style habits with the offspring of centenarians and, therefore, are likely to be informative for studies examining environmental influences and geneenvironment interactions (Hennekens & Buring, 1987). Their often shared ethnic background is particularly important for valid genetic association studies. However, one limitation in using spouses as a comparison group is that they may be biased toward wives since husbands may be more likely to have died, given the shorter life expectancy of men in general.

The second comparison group used in centenarian offspring research consists of offspring whose parents were born in the same years as the centenarians but at least one of whom died at age 73, the average life expectancy for that birth cohort (Terry, Wilcox, McCormick, Lawler, & Perls, 2003). …

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