The media keeps bombarding us with messages about different diets, antioxidants, healthy fats and vegetables that will guarantee us a long and healthy life. But Fredrik Ståhl, Professor of Medical Sciences with a specialisation in Genetics, maintains that the majority of people that live to a very old age live more or less the same way the rest of us do. They perhaps have a somewhat brighter disposition and drink a litter more alcohol than the rest of the population.
On the other hand, it is undisputed that many people of a very old age have genetic conditions for both a long life and a low degree of ill health. This is where the tiny roundworm C. elegans comes in. It has a mutated gene which makes it live twice as long as other roundworms. An equivalent mutation has been discovered in people that live to a very old age.
“Genes and lifestyle are two different fields of research. What we want to do is look at how the two are linked. It's quite a simple task really,” says Fredrik Ståhl.
Investigating healthy elderly people
By means of a simple swab, the group of researchers will investigate genes in the DNA of a few hundred healthy elderly people. Thereafter, everyone taking part in the survey will answer a number of questions concerning how they have lived, their eating habits, their work, their social life and their exercise throughout their life. The hope is to be able to produce a number of different profile groups. The hypothesis is that certain gene variants dominate in certain profile groups, whilst other variants dominate in others.
“We hope to find the answer to how we should live based on the gene variants we have. Can each and every one of us adapt our lifestyle so that it complements the specific genetic conditions that only we have?”
The research group hopes to be able to present the first findings in just one year's time. If the hypothesis proves correct, the group will move on to more in-depth interviews with the elderly subjects.
Pending results, Fredrik Ståhl is reluctant to give advice on what we should eat and how we should live in order to have a long and healthy life. Dietary considerations are much debated, and there is no complete consensus among researchers. Social interaction is probably important, but it can take many forms.
“But moderate physical activity is the best advice - always!”
Text: Helena Lindh