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Good genes are best recipe for longevity


Volney Kavanaugh
Volney Kavanaugh at his home in Massachusetts

It is remarkable enough that Volney Kavanaugh of Roxbury has lived to celebrate 101 birthdays, his mind still able to segue seamlessly from a recounting of his 1919 voyage aboard a banana boat to an analysis of last weekend's Tyson-Lewis bout.

But consider this: He has a 99-year-old sister, and another sister died just three days before she would have joined the ranks of centenarians. Then there are the short-timers of the Kavanaugh clan: a sister who lived to be 90 and two brothers who survived deep into their 80s.

Despite all the talk about the virtue of a good diet and regular exercise, there's no substitute for a good set of genes when it comes to extreme longevity, according to a new study of North American centenarians in today's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Led by Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University and Boston Medical Center, the researchers discovered that brothers of centenarians such as Volney Kavanaugh are at least 17 times more likely than the general population to reach the age of 100, while sisters are eight times more likely to achieve that milestone. The odds didn't change much even when the researchers allowed for powerful factors such as differences in education, income, and race.

''It helps prove what our parents and grandparents have told us for years,'' Perls said. ''Old age runs in families.''

Perls and his associates analyzed 444 families in North America with a total of 2,092 siblings of centenarians. They then compared the experience of those families with the overall life expectancy rates for people born in 1900.

Sisters of centenarians died at a rate about one-half of the national level. The figure was comparable for men, except during adolescence and early adulthood.

''Somebody said to me that the primary thing the centenarians have going for them is the extraordinary intelligence to pick the parents that they did,'' said Daniel Reingold, executive vice president of the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale in New York, which published a calendar of centenarians to mark the millennium.

But why genes are so important remains the source of considerable scientific investigation. Researchers speculate that it is attributable to what centenarians are born with - and born without. It seems probable, Perls and other scientists said, that people who achieve advanced age were born free of genes that trigger disease. Conversely, they may be blessed with cellular material that confers long-term survival, what Perls calls longevity-enabling genes.

He and others have formed a Cambridge company called Centagenetix, which aims to explore the genetic constitution of the advanced aged. They hope to figure out what's right in the genes of those who live long lives and how that differs from those stricken with life-shortening ailments. That could hasten the search for genetic pathways leading to cures.

Still, the findings presented do not tell the full story of how people survive to 100, said Dr. Carl Eisdorfer, a leading specialist in geriatrics at the University of Miami.

''One of the things one can say about genes is that they give you tremendous potential,'' Eisdorfer said. ''But lifestyle can make a difference in allowing you to live out your potential.''

Just look at Volney Kavanaugh. His doctor asked him how he had managed to live so long and with such robust health. ''I told him, `I stay away from the three evils,''' Kavanaugh said, eyes aglow. ''He said, `What's that?' I said, `Tobacco, alcohol, and wild women.'''

He lives on the top floor of a double-decker on a street branded with his name, Kavanaugh Way. It is a home replete with the artifacts of a life lived in full: pictures of his wife, who died just a few days shy of her 100th birthday, and more pictures of his three children, the oldest of whom is 74.

His mind is acute, his gait assured. Kavanaugh weaves a compelling story of how he fled his native Jamaica at the age of 18, heading to Cuba and on to Montreal, before settling in Boston, summoned by a sister. For 55 years, he labored as a printer. ''I never punched the clock late; I never missed a day,'' he said.

Kavanaugh drove until he was 97, when his son persuaded him to give up the keys to his beloved Toyota. Now, he spends his days reading.

His, he said, is a life free of regret, a life still worth embracing. At 101, he maintains a shock of richly black hair.

''Oh, that,'' Kavanaugh said. ''That's a fake. I don't like the gray, so I help it out. You have to keep living.''

Stephen Smith

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 6/11/2002.
It appears courtesy of the Stephen Smith and the Boston Globe.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company