The mystery of why some people live a healthy, independent life over the age of 100 has been cracked by scientists from Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Keio University School of Medicine, Tokyo. To live past the age of 100, they found, you need to keep inflammation down in your body and your telomeres (part of human cells that affect how our cells age) long.

Severe inflammation is a feature of many diseases in the old, such as diabetes or diseases attacking the bones or the body’s joints, and chronic inflammation can develop from any of them.

Professor Thomas von Zglinicki, from Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing, who led the UK part of the longitudinal study, says:

“Centenarians and supercentenarians are different - put simply, they age slower. They can ward off diseases for much longer than the general population."

The scientists expected they would see a continuous shortening of telomeres with age, but what they found was that the children of centenarians, who have a good chance of becoming centenarians themselves, maintained their telomeres at a ‘youthful’ level corresponding to about 60 years of age even when they became 80 or older.

Professor Zglinicki added:

“Our data reveals that once you’re really old, telomere length does not predict further successful ageing. However, it does show that those who have a good chance to become centenarians and those older than 100 maintain their telomeres better than the general population, which suggests that keeping telomeres long may be necessary or at least helpful to reach extreme old age."

Data was collated by combining the community-based group studies: Tokyo Oldest Old Survey on Total Health, Tokyo Centenarians Study and Japanese Semi-Supercentenarians Study.

Centenarian offspring maintained lower levels of markers for chronic inflammation. These levels increased in everybody with age including centenarians and older, but those who were successful in keeping them low had the best chance to maintain good cognition, independence and stay alive for longer.

Professor Zglinicki explained:

“It has long been known that chronic inflammation is associated with the ageing process in younger, more ‘normal’ populations, but it’s only very recently we could mechanistically prove that inflammation actually causes accelerated ageing in mice.

This study, showing for the first time that inflammation levels predict successful ageing even in the extreme old, makes a strong case to assume that chronic inflammation drives human ageing too.

Our study showed that over a wide age range, including unprecedentedly large numbers of the extremely old, inflammation is an important driver of ageing that might be something we can develop a pharmacological treatment for.

Accordingly, designing novel, safe anti-inflammatory or immune-modulating medication has major potential to improve healthy lifespan."

It is hoped that understanding the factors determining extreme longevity may help to achieve extended healthy lifespan for the wider population and to close the gap between the fastest and the slowest ageing population groups.

Inflammation, But Not Telomere Length, Predicts Successful Ageing at Extreme Old Age: A Longitudinal Study of Semi-supercentenarians Arai, Yasumichi et al. EBioMedicine DOI:

Photo: “Telomere caps” by U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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