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'Like winning the lottery': Genes can protect centenarians despite bad habits

The revelation that the world's oldest woman eats bacon every day made many people giddy. But you'd be wise to keep eating veggies.
/ Source: TODAY

The recent revelation that the world’s oldest woman, 116-year-old Susannah Mushatt Jones, eats bacon every day made many people positively giddy.

After all, if she can reach that incredible age without denying her love for the salty, fatty, cholesterol-filled processed meat, perhaps you can, too?

Then, there’s 109-year-old Richard Overton, who still enjoys smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. More proof that bad habits don’t necessarily get in the way of longevity?

Not so fast. You’d be wise to keep eating veggies and working out.

Just because these “very unusual individuals” can keep indulging in bacon or cigars without consequences doesn’t mean the rest of us can do the same, said Dr. Thomas Perls, professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston Medical Center, and director of the New England Centenarian Study.

“The reason some people can get away with some of those behaviors that are bad for you is likely because they have protective genes,” Perls told TODAY.

“It’s the right combination of genes that makes these individuals rare. So it’s not one rare gene, it’s getting the variants of 130 or so genes just right. It’s like winning the lottery.”

This right set of genes makes centenarians age slowly and reduces their risk for age-related diseases, he noted. Doctors are very interested in what those genes are and how they work. Their strongest effect is on people who live to 105 and older, Perls said.

For the rest of us, behavior will help determine much of our longevity.

Read more: Secrets of the world's healthiest children: 6 longevity lessons from Japan

The vast majority of people are built to live to around 89 if you’re a woman, and 86 if you’re a man, Perls said. Getting to your late 80s is probably about 80 percent behavioral, he added.

“For the most part, eating red meat frequently, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, being overweight, not exercising, not managing your stress well — that’s what’s going to make people die generally in their 50s and 60s,” Perls said.

“If you have healthy habits, you can live almost 30 years beyond the age of 60 in good health.”

He pointed to the high life expectancy of Seventh-Day Adventists, who stick to a vegetarian diet; avoid alcohol, tobacco; and enjoy regular exercise.

Read more: How to live to 100: This town may hold the secrets of longevity

Even many centenarians who have all those wonderful genes that protect them still avoid unhealthy habits and do things in moderation, Perls said. When he comes across those with a vice, like craving a daily portion of bacon, he doesn’t try to talk them out it.

“They’ve proven that they know that whatever habits they have are still allowing them to get to these extreme ages, and if that’s something they enjoy, far be it us to tell them to stop doing it,” Perls said. “They’d probably laugh at us.”

Wondering how long you'll live? Try Perls' life expectancy calculator.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Google+ and Twitter.