The black longevity gene? : LUSENET : Unk's Troll-free Private Saloon : One Thread

News and Observer Dec 16, 2001


Race,longevity may be linked through genes Blacks make up nearly a third of N.C. centenarians, but scientists aren't sure why

The age-old quest for the secret to longevity still hasn't solved the riddle of why there are so many folks like Susie Moore Alston, age 103.

The mystery is not that she has made it so long despite a hard life, picking cotton in the fields of Franklin County at age 4. It's not that she has always eaten fried fish and fried chicken and has a sweet tooth for candy and ice cream. It's not that, to this day, she washes with old-fashioned lye soap.

The puzzler is her skin color. An unusually high percentage of centenarians are black. For now, no one is sure why, although the recent discovery of a longevity gene may soon yield clues.

"My secret to living a long time? I don't know," Alston says quietly, resting in an easy chair in her granddaughter's Raleigh home. "I asked the Lord to have a long life and let me keep my sound mind. I don't have to wear glasses; I don't have a hearing aid; I don't have to take any medications. I feel good."

Alston is among 383 African-Americans in North Carolina age 100 or older, the 2000 Census shows. Together, they make up 31 percent of all Tar Heel centenarians.

But only 21 percent of the state's population is black. And African-Americans are only about 15 percent of North Carolinians in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.

The numbers are not as dramatic nationally, but the same pattern is there. Nationally, black people are 12 percent of the population but 14 percent of centenarians.

The high percentage of black centenarians is especially intriguing because the average life expectancy for African-Americans is years shorter than for whites. So although many blacks may not make it to advanced old age, those who do seem to stand a better-than-odds chance of reaching 100.

Good attitude may add years

Alston's granddaughter, Pattie W. Pendry, knows one reason for her grandmother's long life.

"Grandma doesn't know what it is to have stress," said Pendry, 61, a writer and Christian counselor. "When you are 4 years old and you're picking cotton on a man's field until your fingers split, and you're not allowed to go to school - she knows what hard times are, but not what stress is. And I think that has a lot to do with longevity. Don't you agree, today stress kills a lot of people?"

Studies show that an easygoing style of handling stress is common among many centenarians regardless of race, along with a healthy diet, close family ties, moderate use of alcohol and abstinence from smoking. Of course, having good genes goes without saying.

Another way that centenarians are alike: Most are women. Of the 1,248 centenarians the census counted in North Carolina last year, 81 percent were female.

Ismay Carter of Raleigh, who celebrated her 100th birthday last month, was born six days after her husband, Sam. She has outlived him by a quarter-century.

Carter, who is white, said what made her strong was growing up eating Alberta peaches, beef and other fresh food from the family farm in Northampton County. That, and being a heavy milk drinker all her life.

Her mind is as sharp as ever. Carter can recite family history in detail, even down to the price of the Steinway baby grand piano - $1,489 - that her family bought in the 1930s.

She learned to play by ear, and although Carter still lives in the same green house she and her husband bought in 1970, she takes regular trips to a North Raleigh retirement community to make music for the younger old folks. There, her agile fingers lightly trip the keys of a slightly out-of-tune piano, playing ragtime, Glenn Miller and Hoagy Carmichael tunes by memory.

Longevity runs in Carter's family, as it does in Alston's. Carter's mother died at 93, never having spent a day in the hospital. Her younger sister, Jesse, is 95. Carter's daughter, Honoré McHugh of Cary, is a young 77, and she drops in daily to help out her mother and her aunt.

A good attitude is part of Carter's recipe for a long life: "I've had a happy life. I'm optimistic. I'm cheerful. I think positively. And I don't lie here at night and think about what mean thing somebody has done to me, how mean I am, how mean the world is. I think of the good things."

Closing in on the code

Longevity starts with good genes, and science is closing in on the code. After years of studying 137 centenarians and others near 100, Thomas T. Perls, a Harvard scientist, last summer reported a breakthrough in the search for a gene responsible for long life.

But too few African-Americans participated in the study for the findings to pinpoint genetic differences among races. More research is needed, Perls said, but he suspects that some blacks may have a genetic advantage, the "spectacular genes" that lengthen life by 15 to 20 years.

"It is possible that more African-American centenarians might have those spectacular genes," said Perls, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The oldest centenarians are even more likely to be black, census data show. Of North Carolinians ages 100 to 104, almost 30 percent are black. From 105 to 109, 38 percent are black. Of those 110 and older, 42 percent are black.

To some extent, the numbers could be an anomaly. Inaccuracies in birth certificates for African-Americans a century ago might partially explain the numbers.

But Eric Stallard, a research professor at Duke University's Center for Demographic Studies, said genes and lifestyle habits offer the best explanation. The statistics on black centenarians stand out because life expectancy at birth for African-Americans, at 71.1 years, is six years less than for whites.

African-Americans tend not to live as long, in part, because they have less access to health care than do whites, Stallard said. Science and medicine keep alive many more whites who otherwise might have died from disease or unhealthy habits.

But that advantage disappears in the oldest age brackets. People who survive to a very old age generally have been healthy all their lives, a sign of sturdy genes.

"All things being equal, if you're African-American, you're disadvantaged for most of your life, so you have a lesser chance of making it to the older ages," Stallard said. "Having made it to the older ages, you've either been lucky or you have some kind of constitutional endowment that makes you have better survival chances moving forward."

Factoring in family support

Close family ties also may help people live longer. In North Carolina, as in much of the South, many elderly African-Americans live with relatives rather than in nursing homes.

At 106, Isabell Byrd Hinton lives in a small, tidy house in Garner with her youngest son, Ernest. He's one of seven children in a family that loves to laugh, and all help care for their mother.

Hinton, increasingly frail since breaking a leg in a fall three years ago, is the last of eight children who grew up on a farm in Clayton. She reared her children on a farm outside Garner, cooking up hearty plates of country biscuits, chicken and gravy; scrubbing clothes spotless on a washboard; traversing country roads by mule and buggy to a white, wooden church on Sundays.

All her children are in their 60s and 70s, all in good health. All said they hope to live to 100, like their mother. Still, Ernest Hinton, a bachelor at 65, isn't sure he'll last that long.

"If I live to get to be her age, they'll have to put me in a rest home, because I don't have anybody to take care of me," he said, chuckling. "See, Mama has seven children, and that's one reason why she's living so long."

Ruthel Hinton, a daughter who looks far younger than her 74 years, also wonders if she'll see 100:

"I have said to Mama a lot of times, 'Mama, I hope I live to get your age, but I'll never live to get your age.' She said, 'You will. You will.' "

-- (, December 17, 2001


The high percentage of black centenarians is especially intriguing because the average life expectancy for African-Americans is years shorter than for whites. So although many blacks may not make it to advanced old age, those who do seem to stand a better-than-odds chance of reaching 100.

-- (, December 17, 2001.

Excuse me here, Lars, but I don't understand a black longevity gene in light of what the article said:

The oldest centenarians are even more likely to be black, census data show. Of North Carolinians ages 100 to 104, almost 30 percent are black. From 105 to 109, 38 percent are black. Of those 110 and older, 42 percent are black.

Almost 30% are black? Doesn't this mean that 70% are something else? 38% are black...42% are black. The MAJORITY seems to be something else.

-- Anita (, December 17, 2001.

Anita, the point is that the percentage of blacks living to very advanced ages exceeds the percentage of whites (assuming that 42% of the population of NC is not black). Maybe this has a genetic basis, maybe not. Seems like a phenomenon worthy of scientific study. Would it be racist to determine that there is a genetic basis for black longevity?

There are other places in the world that exhibit longevity. There is a group in the Caucasus moutains I believe. They just might be Caucasians. Maybe they have a genetic predisposition also. Maybe they have a healthy goat cheese diet. Maybe living at altitude is a factor.

-- (, December 17, 2001.

Regarding those oldsters from the Caucasus:

"In Georgia, in the old days, many men took the names of their fathers to avoid military service in both the World Wars. The practice was particularly prevalent in that part of the country. When Stalin who was a Georgian himself, took a personal interest in the centenarian reports as he grew older, the claims were officially endorsed by the government." etc.

Okay, the information is from a science fiction book, Eternity by Mack Reynolds, one of these stories with a bunch of people several centuries old who have a secret society and among them a real old person who looks to be about 35 and recalls making those cave paintings in Spain.

Philip Jose Farmer has one of these yarns too and Tarzan is one of the members of the secret society! Not sure if he means our Tarzan though.

-- dandelion (golden@pleurisy.plant), December 18, 2001.

Methusalah was 900 years

-- (Porgy@Bess'.place), December 18, 2001.

A study of the long-lived inhabitants of Soviet Georgia revealed that those who eat the most fatty meat live the longest. (Pitskhelauri, G Z, The Long Living of Soviet Georgia, 1982, Human Sciences Press, New York, NY.)

In Okinawa, where the average life span for women is 84 years - longer than in Japan - the inhabitants eat generous amounts of pork and seafood and do all their cooking in lard. (Franklyn, D, Health, Sept. 1996, 57-63) quoted in, Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions

Let's face it, I enjoy being a contrarian :-)

-- Debbie (, December 18, 2001.


-- Debbie (, December 18, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ