A room full of people aged 70-95 years. They rinse out their mouths. No one is allowed to eat anything. Fredrik Ståhl, professor of genetics at the University of Borås, is giving a lecture on ageing. Then the doors are opened and the fragrance of coffee and cinnamon buns fills the air.
"Those taking part in the study are required to give a saliva sample, preferably two millilitres, so we can analyse their DNA. That's quite a lot of saliva so it was a deliberate move on our part to let the smell of buns stimulate the production of saliva," he says.
No one is allowed to eat anything before giving the saliva sample and they must rinse out their mouths thoroughly first. Otherwise the result of the DNA analysis could show a strange mix of human, apple and throat lozenge. In addition to providing a saliva specimen, the "seniors" taking part in the study are asked to fill in a questionnaire about their lifestyle.
"We believe that each person in this study has succeeded in matching their genetic make-up with their lifestyle in a good way since they have managed to become 70-95 years old and are healthy. They are a living key," says Fredrik Ståhl.
Finding answers through grouping
The researchers are going to group the participants on the basis of their lifestyle. For example, group A: people who have danced a lot and never drunk alcohol, or group B: a group of heavy smokers who have never taken exercise. They hope that when they compare the groups, they will be able to see that they have different sets of genes.
Skövde – Borås research collaboration
The research collaboration between the University of Skövde and the University of Borås was initiated after the previous government called for more cooperation between Sweden's small and medium-sized universities. The goal is to develop competitive research environments that help to ensure that research findings are put to real use outside the academic world. Read more about the collaboration.
"If people have some idea about what diseases run in their family or what their relatives have died from, i.e. what genes they have, then our results could serve as a key to how one should live to have a long and healthy life," says Fredrik Ståhl.
"But if it turns out that all the groups have similar gene variation, then the answer is that genes do not matter. Då är svaret att generna inte spelar någon roll. We will have some sort of result before the end of the year," he continues.
The study is divided into two phases. After the researchers have grouped the participants and compared the groups with their genes, they will randomly select some persons for deep interviews so as to get a better and more detailed picture of how they have lived their lives.
Fredrik Ståhl and his colleagues are not the first researchers to search for the key to long life. Researchers have produced a lot of dietary advice and tips on physical exercise to promote long life. These studies have usually been based on large groups and give statistically significant results that are generally true for most people but which are not necessarily true for an individual.
Another line of research focuses instead on individual persons and how they age. Centenarians - people who are 100 years or more - have been particularly closely studied. What is it about those particular people that gives them a long, healthy life? They give advice such as eat chocolate, use olive oil both internally and externally, don't interfere in other people's business, or be kind to other people.
"But their advice isn't worth anything. They simply have good genes, in exactly the same way as some people have a less favourable genetic make-up," says Fredrik Ståhl. Precis som vissa människor har väldigt dåliga genetiska förutsättningar, säger Fredrik Ståhl.
It has also been discovered that many centenarians have gene variants that promote healthy ageing in different ways. Frequently, these gene variants are linked to a process called autophagia. This is a process that is found in all biological creatures, a way of dealing with byproducts in the body when there is no other nutrition available.
The byproducts do not degrade easily, they remain in the body and turn into waste which is suspected to contribute to the occurrence of, for example, cardiac and vascular disease and neurological diseases like Parkinson. Autophagia can be induced by starvation but also by supplying certain specific substances, e.g. by drinking a 100 ?? glass of red wine a day (to get enough of a substance called resveratrol) or eating wheatgerm (then the substance that induces autophagia is called spermidine).
"This works when tested on animals but it has not been tested on humans and therefore it is highly questionable if one can recommend such measures."
Searching for the reason
The researchers in the project believe that each of these active "seniors" have matched their lifestyle with their individual genetic make-up so well that this is the reason for their long, healthy life.
"The really interesting thing is not what these amazing 100-year-olds do or what gene variants they have; it's more about what the rest of us, who have a less extreme mix of genes, should do to stay healthy to an advanced age," Fredrik Ståhl continues.
The study which is now under way is part of a project at the universities in Borås and Skövde. After two meetings that were organised together with "Aktiva seniorer i Skövde" (Active Seniors in Skövde), the researchers have collected samples from 150 people so far. All in all, they are hoping to get 800 samples. Another meeting with lectures and data collection was held in Skövde on 3 March and soon they will be arranging meetings in Borås too.