Want to Buy Some Time?

The ultimate luxury — a longer life — isn't for sale, but a leading doctor to the 100-plus set knows a thing or two about how to keep the good times going.

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You work hard. You exercise regularly. You live well. You’ve practically got it all. Except, of course, the guarantee that the good life won’t end anytime soon. In a word: longevity. A long, healthy life may truly be the ultimate luxury, and as sci-fi as it sounds, researchers are getting closer to pinpointing exactly what keeps your organs and cells young no matter what your chronological age.

We caught up with Stephen L. Coles, MD, a lecturer in the department of biochemistry at UCLA, and one of the country’s leading experts on supercentarians, people who are at least 110 years old. Dr. Coles studies them when they’re alive — visiting and interviewing them — and performs autopsies on them once they’re deceased.

His findings: What killed these long-living folks isn’t what ends the life of the average American — that would be atherosclerosis, when the coronary arteries become so clogged with cholesterol that blood can’t move through, causing a heart attack or stroke. In the 10 autopsies Dr. Coles has performed on supercentarians, they all had the arteries of a young person. “The grim reaper has many ways of getting you, and for most of these people, it came in the form of a condition called TTR amyloidosis, in which abnormal deposits of certain proteins build up along the walls of blood vessels, causing the heart to pump harder and, eventually, to give out,” says Dr. Coles. Almost all of us will develop some level of amyloidosis, but because it’s such a slow-moving disease, people rarely die of it, and succumb instead to more aggressive conditions (heart disease, cancer, stroke).

If scientists came up with a substance that could dissolve the protein deposits — and projects are underway at different institutions to discover just that — then, hi, fountain of youth. Dr. Coles believes that in the next 10 years, these discoveries will be made. In the meantime, are there any other lessons to be learned from supercentarians? “Choose your parents wisely,” Dr. Coles half-jokes. By which he means to say that they all had good genes, which allowed some of them to continue terrible habits, like smoking and not exercising. Happily, there are proven lifestyle habits that even Dr. Coles himself swears by to make it to the big 1-0-0 and beyond. Here’s how he is stacking the deck for himself and how you can too: