Science - June 10, 2004

Geneticist gives advice on how to reach a ripe old age

Last weekend it was announced that the officially recognised oldest woman in the world is a Dutch woman. Hendrikje van Andel is almost 114. Does science have a recipe ready for people who want to break this record?

Professor Rolf Hoekstra, Head of the Laboratory of Genetics:

“The ageing process is genetically programmed. Of course we can’t read directly from your genetic material how old you will live to be. It also depends on whether you smoke, what you eat, and whether you have an accident. But that you will die after a certain point is imprinted in your genes.
Is there a recipe for a long life? What might help is eating little. Animals live up to forty percent longer if you give them a third of the amount of calories they normally consume. But I don’t know whether I can really recommend this. First of all it has not been proven that this works, but it is of course an enormous sacrifice. I once read an interview with an American who did follow a reduced diet. He said that he had to wear thermal underwear because he had difficulty keeping himself warm, and his energy level was probably always low.
The reason that animals on a reduced diet live longer is probably to be found in the mitochondria, the energy source in cells. The processes by which energy is provided to the body probably release substances that damage the DNA, but we do not know exactly how this works.
A PhD student of mine tried to select fruit flies that are likely to live longer, and got astonishingly good results. The fruit flies lived much longer, but there was a price to pay: they were less fertile. This is a good example of the evolutionary reason for death: nature selects on the basis of reproductive success, not old age. Mice have a maximum age of five years for a reason. In the wild a mouse that could reach a hundred is never likely to live much longer than five years, as the chances are high that it will be eaten up by a predator. This means that fatal DNA mutations that only emerge after five years of age are likely to remain in the genetic material, and you get a natural trend toward a logical age limit for each species. You can compare it with cars: if you know that cars never last longer than twenty years, because they are likely to have had an accident within that time, there’s no point manufacturing cars that will last a hundred years.
Will there ever be a drink that enables us to reach 120? I doubt it, that would be too simple. But if you are still interested in doing the low calorie diet I have good news: it doesn’t matter if you start relatively late in life. Older laboratory animals that were put on the diet did live longer.”

Korné Versluis