Despite survival boost, gender gap hasn’t budged DURHAM, N.C. -- People worldwide are living longer, healthier lives. A new study of mortality patterns in humans, monkeys and apes suggests that the last few generations of humans have enjoyed the biggest life expectancy boost in primate history. The gains are partly due to advances in medicine and public health that have increased the odds of... Read More
Despite survival boost, gender gap hasn’t budged
DURHAM, N.C. -- People worldwide are living longer, healthier lives. A new study of mortality patterns in humans, monkeys and apes suggests that the last few generations of humans have enjoyed the biggest life expectancy boost in primate history.
The gains are partly due to advances in medicine and public health that have increased the odds of survival for human infants and reduced the death toll from childhood illness. Yet males still lag behind females -- not just in humans but across the primate family tree, the researchers find.
“The male disadvantage has deep evolutionary roots,” said study co-author Susan Alberts, biology professor at Duke University.
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Predict My Future reveals the answers to one of life's most fundamental questions: what makes us who we are? 43 years ago a New Zealand medical school embarked on a remarkable project—the ultimate nature versus nurture test. They decided to follow every one of the 1,037 babies born in the city of Dunedin between April 1972 and March 1973 for their entire lives. And they have. Those children have become the 1,000 most studied people in the world.
For almost four decades every aspect of their health and development has been monitored—their genes, their growth, their physical well-being, their psychology, their emotional ups and downs, criminal convictions, successes, failures—the lot. The result is the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, the broadest and the most in-depth study of human beings in the world. The project has become the richest and most productive archive of human development anywhere. It is truly unique; the study has retained an unprecedented 96% of its starting participants. It is re-writing the book on what makes us all human. Predict My Future details the study's findings, and explores what they have to say about all our lives. This series has a global audience and is being screened across Europe, and in Australasia, with additional territories in negotiation.
Film available for streaming in the US at Curiosity Stream.
Film available for purchase here.
For educational distribution visit Films for Humanities and Sciences.
Parents can help prevent their underage kids from drinking by employing a relatively simple strategy: setting clear rules that prohibit drinking, new research shows.
The finding is based on the survey responses from more than 1,100 U.S. teenagers and young adults in 24 cities in seven states. The participants, who were between 15 and 20 years old, reported their partying behavior, and also whether their families had clear rules against drinking.
"Family rules may be a useful complement to community rules and policies" in the effort to prevent underage drinking, said Mark Wolfson, the study's lead researcher and a professor of social sciences and health policy at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today's Parents]
The researchers found that the teenagers whose parents had clear rules against underage drinking were 35 percent less likely to have attended a party where there was alcohol in the past 30 days, compared with teens whose parents did not have crystal-clear rules.
Moreover, the 658 survey participants (about 60 percent) who said they had recently attended parties with alcohol were 38 percent less likely to drink at those parties if their parents had rules against it, compared with kids whose parents didn't have clear rules, the researchers found. Future research should examine whether parents can be coached in developing effective and appropriate rules for their children, Wolfson said. Most parents do set rules, the study showed: Among the teens in the study, 58 percent reported that their parents had clear rules against drinking, Wolfson found.
It's important to curb underage drinking for many reasons, including that it's often associated with risky behaviors, such as drunk driving, interpersonal violence and vandalism, Wolfson said. It can also lead to binge drinking, which is linked with a host of health problems, including liver disease and certain cancers, according to according to a 2012 reportfrom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The finding, though preliminary, could empower families and ultimately help them shape the healthy development of their children, said Adam Lippert, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver who was not involved in the research.
However, further research should investigate which types of parental rules work best, he said.
For example, it's unclear whether it's more effective to have rules that specifically forbid kids from drinking alcohol, or to have more general rules that restrict kids from going to parties or that give them curfews, Lippert said.
Moreover, in an email to Live Science, Kenneth Land, a research professor at the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University who was not involved with the research, noted that, "it would be good to have additional data on birth order of the child and a few other items, such as religious affiliation and ... perhaps on parents' own histories of drinking alcohol [and] attending drinking parties when they were teenagers."
The research had other limitations, too. For example, about 76 percent of the participants were white, so the results may not apply to other groups.
The findings were presented Monday (Aug. 22) at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Seattle. The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Psychological characteristics link genes with upward social mobility, according to data collected from almost 1000 individuals over four decades. The data suggest that various psychological factors play a role in linking a person’s genetic profile and several important life outcomes, including professional achievement, financial security, geographic mobility, and upward social mobility.
The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The study, led by psychological scientist Daniel W. Belsky of Duke University School of Medicine, builds on previous research indicating a genetic continuum that predicts individuals’ educational achievement.
In the earlier study, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium examined millions of genetic variants in more than 100,000 people and found that these variants could be aggregated and turned into a “polygenic score” that was linked with educational attainment. Participants with polygenic scores above zero were more likely to complete more years of schooling, whereas those with scores below zero were likely to complete fewer years of schooling.
“Getting a good education requires many of the same skills and abilities needed to get ahead in life more generally, so we hypothesized that the same genetics that predicted success in schooling would predict success in life,” says Belsky.
Belsky and colleagues capitalized on longitudinal data from the Dunedin Study, an ongoing study that has followed individuals in New Zealand from birth through their fourth decade. The study includes a representative sample and has had a very low dropout rate.
Over the course of the study, participants have completed assessments evaluating their developmental milestones in childhood; their traits, behaviors, and aspirations through adolescence; and their attainments and outcomes in adulthood.
Belsky and colleagues matched the genotypes of Dunedin Study participants with the genome-wide associations with educational attainment that had been reported previously.
The results revealed that genetic links with educational attainment predict outcomes that go well beyond the completion of schooling, as Belsky and colleagues hypothesized.
The researchers found that individuals with higher polygenic scores were more likely to move away from home in search of professional opportunities, they built more successful careers, they were better at managing their money, and they had spouses with higher levels of education and greater earnings.
Importantly, the results indicated that higher polygenic scores were associated with social mobility — children with higher polygenic scores tended to achieve more socioeconomic success even if they were born into families that were relatively poor.
Intelligence partly accounted for the association between genes and life outcomes, but so did other psychological characteristics, including self-control and interpersonal skills (e.g., being friendly).
But there were some important life outcomes that the polygenic scores did not predict. When the researchers looked at whether polygenic score predicted children’s physical health – measured from repeated clinical exams across childhood – they found no evidence of an association.
Together, the findings provide glimpses into how genes may ultimately shape our lives over time, but the researchers emphasize that the associations between polygenic score and life outcomes are small:
“We can make only very weak predictions about how far a child can go in life based on their genes,” Belsky explains.
The data currently available do not provide sufficient information to guide educational interventions or other real-world applications; nonetheless, they raise provocative questions that ought to be discussed among scientists, policymakers, and the members of the public.
“‘Precision education’ or other tailoring of environments to children’s genomes is not possible with the data we have in hand today, but our findings suggest that such data may someday become available,” Belsky says. “It is vital to have the conversation about what that might mean and how we will deal with it before it happens.”
Co-authors include Terrie E. Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi (Duke University and King’s College London); David L. Corcoran, HonaLee Harrington, Renate Houts, Karen Sugden, and Benjamin S. Williams (Duke University); Benjamin Domingue (Stanford University); Sean Hogan, Sandhya Ramrakha, and Richie Poulton (University of Otago).
The research was supported by the US National Institute on Aging (NIH AG032282; AG048895; T32 AG000029; P30 AG028716-08), the UK Medical Research Council (MRC MR/K00381X), and the New Zealand Health Research Council and Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, which supports the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit. Dan Belsky is a Fellow of the Jacobs Foundation.
To view the paper, click here.
The Duke-UNC Social and Biological Determinants of Health Working Group wrapped up the fall semester with their second meeting on December 7th.
We are hoping to re-convene in early 2016 to continue the group’s goal of narrowing down definitional clarity and synthesis across fields.
Social and Biological Determinants of Health Working Group Leadership:
Mike Shanahan (Sociology, UNC/CPC )
Jenny Tung (Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke/DUPRI)
- Dan Belsky (Medicine, Duke/DUPRI)
- Noah Snyder-Mackler (Evolutionary Anthropology, Post-Doc, Duke/DUPRI)
- Susan Alberts (Biology Duke/DUPRI)
- Claire Yang (Sociology, UNC/CPC)
- Kathie Harris (Sociology, UNC/CPC)
- Lauren Gaydosh (Sociology Post-Doc, UNC/CPC)
- Allison Aiello ( Epidemiology, UNC/CPC)
- Lisa McGraw, (Biology, NC State)
- Heather Patisaul, (Biology, NC State)
November 3, 2015, Meeting Summary. The current working group includes membership divided evenly between the social sciences and natural sciences, with representation from Duke, UNC, and NC State and senior faculty, junior faculty, and post-docs. The approaches members use is broad, but we overlap strongly on two shared research interests: social behavior and its health/fitness outcomes. Based on e-mail responses from the working group members and discussion during the meeting, the strongest contribution we think we can make comes first from providing definitional clarity and synthesis across fields, with the possibility, down the road, of collaboratively conducting synthetic analyses. However, the group converged on a more definitional/conceptual synthesis as a primary goal. Meeting Venue: UNC/CPC
To move the dialogue forward, the group decided to roughly separate into the “social science” and “natural science” contingents, and identify “blind spots” in how our fields view the social/biological determinants of health. The goal was to share these blind spots with the other contingent several weeks before the next meeting, so that the other group could evaluate whether an alternative disciplinary perspective could help resolve the issue, drawing on current literature/research (i.e., “I have the perfect paper for you!”). Noah Snyder-Mackler set up a Slack account to promote and track this dialogue
December 7, 2015, Meeting Summary. Jenny Tung provided a summary of key questions that emerged via on-line discussion. The group divided themselves into those in the social sciences fields (Shanahan, Harris, Yang, Gaydosh, Belsky), and those in the natural sciences fields (Tung, Alberts, Snyder-Mackler, Mc Graw, Patisaul) to discuss what each group would like to learn from the other. A discussion based on literature, frameworks and models followed. Key barriers included disconnect in the definition of similar terms (e.g. selection, mediation) or lack of familiarity with constructs belonging to other disciplines (e.g. Niche construction, social isolation). The group determined that discussion will continue on-line via slack, but that a synthetic/definitional paper based on these discussions might be valuable and unprecedented product. Nonetheless all agreed on the need to define and narrow audience and forum for this product. Next meeting to be scheduled in January 2016. The need to reassess both membership and frequency of meetings was also raised. Meeting Venue: Duke University
A research team led by Dan Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, and Terrie Moffitt at Duke University reports that the process of aging is already highly variable among people still in their 20s and 30s Young people who are aging rapidly are already showing signs of physical and cognitive decline in their 30’s.FINDINGS:
PUBLICATION SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, to appear online the week of July 6, 2015.
- As we age, our risk for diseases rises. These diseases affect many different organ systems in our bodies. This implies that improving health in later life will require interventions that can actually slow the aging process. Doing so will prevent multiple age-related diseases simultaneously.
- Aging is a process of decline in the functioning of many organ systems simultaneously. Our research shows that this process is already happening in young adults who are still decades away from developing age-related diseases.
- Accelerated aging in young adults predicts the very same symptoms of advanced aging that we see in older adults: Deficits in physical and cognitive functioning, subjective feelings of ill-health, and even looking older to others.
- Breakthroughs in research on aging in worms, flies, and mice are beginning to produce novel therapies to slow human aging. The first clinical trials are being designed now.
- Currently, most research to slow aging in humans focuses on older adults.
- Our findings show that in older adults, processes of accelerated aging may already be well-entrenched and difficult to modify.
- New treatments aim to prevent multiple age-related diseases at once by slowing down the aging process. These treatments may be most effective when delivered to recipients who are still relatively young.
Two approaches to measuring aging. We measured Dunedin Study members’ aging in two ways. First, we took a snapshot of their physiologies when they were 38 years old. We used an algorithm developed out of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) to calculate a “Biological Age.” Although they were all chronologically 38 years old when their data were collected, Study members ranged in their Biological Age from under 30 to over 60. We next looked at how Study members’ bodies changed over time from when they were 26 years old to when they were 38 years old. We examined their cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems, their kidneys, livers, and lungs, their dental health, and their DNA (18 different biomarkers in all) when they were 26, 32, and 38. For each member of the Study, we calculated how each biomarker changed over the 12-year period. Finally, we composited these changes into a single index that quantified that person’s own “Pace of Aging.” Some Study members appeared to age not at all—they were physiologically the same when we saw them at age 26 and, 12 years later, when they were 38. Most study members aged at a normal pace—1 year’s worth of physiological change for each chronological year that passed. Some Study members aged much faster, aging 2 or 3 years physiologically with the passage of each chronological year.
Young adults who were aging more rapidly showed signs of aging commonly observed in older adults. Young adults we measured as aging faster showed worse balance and poorer motor coordination, they were physically less strong, and they reported having more trouble completing daily tasks like climbing stairs or carrying groceries. These fast-aging young adults also showed evidence of cognitive decline—compared to baseline testing they completed as children, their IQ scores had gone down by age 38. Photographs of their retinal microvasculature told a similar story, indicating increased risk for stroke and dementia.
Changes in fast-aging young adults were visible to the naked eye. Study members who we measured as aging faster reported feeling in worse health. Age-related changes weren’t on the inside only. Duke University undergraduates who rated facial photographs of the Study members tended to rate the fast-agers as looking older.
PARTICIPANTS: Participants were members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which tracks the development of a birth cohort of 1,037 children born in 1972-1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. This birth cohort’s families represent the full range of socioeconomic status and health in the general population. Follow-ups have been carried out at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32, and most recently at age 38 years, when 95% of the living cohort members took part. We examined 954 cohort members who participated in repeated clinical assessments at ages 26, 32, and 38 years.
MEDIA CONTACT: Dan Belsky, Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, Duke University School of Medicine.
email@example.com (t) 919-613-4534 (m) 919-357-8200
UNIVERSITIES INVOLVED: Duke University, Durham, NC, USA; University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ; Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London, UK.
MAIN FUNDING SOURCES: The research was supported by the US National Institute on Aging (NIH AG032282; AG048895; T32 AG000029; P30 AG028716-08), the UK Medical Research Council (MRC MR/K00381X), and the New Zealand Health Research Council, which supports the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit.
DURHAM, N.C. -- Looking around at a 20th high school reunion, you might notice something puzzling about your classmates. Although they were all born within months of each other, these 38-year-olds appear to be aging at different rates.
Indeed they are, say the leaders of a large long-term human health study in New Zealand that has sought clues to the aging process in young adults.
In a paper appearing the week of July 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team from the U.S., UK, Israel and New Zealand introduces a panel of 18 biological measures that may be combined to determine whether people are aging faster or slower than their peers.
The data comes from the Dunedin Study, a landmark longitudinal study that has tracked more than a thousand people born in 1972-73 in the same town from birth to the present. Health measures like blood pressure and liver function have been taken regularly, along with interviews and other assessments.
“We set out to measure aging in these relatively young people,” said first author Dan Belsky, an assistant professor of geriatrics in Duke University’s Center for Aging. “Most studies of aging look at seniors, but if we want to be able to prevent age-related disease, we’re going to have to start studying aging in young people.”
Belsky said the progress of aging shows in human organs just as it does in eyes, joints and hair, but sooner. So as part of their regular reassessment of the study population at age 38 in 2011, the team measured the functions of kidneys, liver, lungs, metabolic and immune systems. They also measured HDL cholesterol, cardiorespiratory fitness, lung function and the length of the telomeres -- protective caps at the end of chromosomes that have been found to shorten with age. The study also measures dental health and the condition of the tiny blood vessels at the back of the eyes, which are a proxy for the brain’s blood vessels.
Based on a subset of these biomarkers, the research team set a “biological age” for each participant, which ranged from under 30 to nearly 60 in the 38-year-olds.
The researchers then went back into the archival data for each subject and looked at 18 biomarkers that were measured when the participants were age 26, and again when they were 32 and 38. From this, they drew a slope for each variable, and then the 18 slopes were added for each study subject to determine that individual’s pace of aging.
Most participants clustered around an aging rate of one year per year, but others were found to be aging as fast as three years per chronological year. Many were aging at zero years per year, in effect staying younger than their age.
As the team expected, those who were biologically older at age 38 also appeared to have been aging at a faster pace. A biological age of 40, for example, meant that person was aging at a rate of 1.2 years per year over the 12 years the study examined.
This paper reports on 954 of the original 1,037 Dunedin study participants. Thirty of them had died by age 38: 12 by illnesses such as cancer and congenital defects, 10 by accidents and eight by suicide or drug overdose. Another 26 did not take part in the study at age 38. Twenty-seven participants had insufficient data to be included.
Most people think of the aging process as something that happens late in life, Belsky said, but signs of aging were already apparent in these tests over the 12 years of young adulthood: from 26 to 38.
Study members who appeared to be more advanced in biological aging also scored worse on tests typically given to people over 60, including tests of balance and coordination and solving unfamiliar problems. The biologically older individuals also reported having more difficulties with physical functioning than their peers, such as walking up stairs.
As an added measure, the researchers asked Duke University undergraduate students to assess facial photos of the study participants taken at age 38 and rate how young or old they appeared. Again, the participants who were biologically older on the inside also appeared older to the college students.
The aging process isn’t all genetic. Studies of twins have found that only about 20 percent of aging can be attributed to genes, Belsky said. “There’s a great deal of environmental influence,” he said.
“That gives us some hope that medicine might be able to slow aging and give people more healthy active years,” said senior author Terrie Moffitt, the Nannerl O. Keohane professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.
This paper’s methods are merely a proof of concept, Belsky said, to show that it’s possible to see an aging trajectory by combining multiple measures.
“The time is right for this kind of multi-factorial way of measuring the aging process,” he said, but the measures and methods need refinement to be “better, faster and cheaper.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is to be able to intervene in the aging process itself, rather than addressing killers like heart disease or cancer in isolation, Belsky said.
“As we get older, our risk grows for all kinds of different diseases,” he said. “To prevent multiple diseases simultaneously, aging itself has to be the target. Otherwise, it’s a game of whack-a-mole.”
This research was funded by the New Zealand Health Research Council, U.S. National Institute on Aging, UK Medical Research Council, Jacobs Foundation and the Yad Hanadiv Rothschild Foundation.
Jessi Streib's editorial in the Washington Post explores the themes of her new book, "The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages" (Oxford University Press, 2015) in the context of increasing economic segregation.
An investigation of the impact of statewide job loss on adolescent suicide-related behaviors by Anna Gassman-Pines, Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat and Christina M. Gibson-Davis was featured in U.S. News & World Report and other outlets.
Guidance on Resumption of NIH Extramural Activities Following the Recent Lapse in Appropriations (NOT-OD-14-003) Office of the Director, NIH. This is the latest news we have about operations at NIH after the shutdown. The following topics are covered:
- eRA Systems Availability,
- Rescheduling October Application Due Dates,
- Processing of Applications Submitted During the Shutdown,
- Replacing an Application that was Submitted for an October Due Date,
- Rescheduling Peer Review Meetings,
- Opportunity to “Refresh” Applications that are Reassigned to May 2014 Council,
- Early Stage Investigator Eligibility,
- K99/R00 Eligibility, Payment Management System,
- Award Actions, Financial Operations under a Continuing Resolution.
V. Joseph Hotz argues in the online magazine Slate that birth order influences achievement in life because parents target first-borns for discipline to establish their reputation for toughness and hope the message trickles down to the other kids. Based on a working paper written with Washington University colleague Juan Pantano, the theory received wide media coverage by PBS Newshour, NPR’s Marketplace, The Atlantic, MSNBC and others.
Kaare Christensen, research scientist with the DUPRI Center for Population Health and Aging, is featured by BBCNews.com for his comparison of Danish nonagenarians born a decade apart. The study, published in The Lancet, found significantly better cognitive function and activities of daily living in the later cohort, suggesting that a larger proportion of people are living to older ages in better overall health than in the past.
The Ninth Supercentenarian Workshop was held May 11 and 12 at the Palazzo Brancaccio in Rome, Italy.
Sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, the meeting was led by MPIDR director James Vaupel, who is also co-director of DuPRI's Center for Population Health and Aging, and locally organized by Graziella Caselli of the Department of Social, Economic, Actuarial and Demographic Studies of the University of Rome La Sapienza.
Over two full and lively days, researchers from Europe, Scandinavia, the U.S., Canada, Japan and Brazil presented their latest data and analyses of the phenomenon of "supercentenarians" — people who reach the age of 110 or more — and "semi-supercentenarians," those between 105 and 110 years old. Many of the presentations updated research described in the group's most recent monograph, "Supercentenarians," published in 2010. They included trends in mortality at extreme old ages, comparisons to historical rates of centenarian survival, evidence on biological traits associated with reaching supercentenarian status and statistical issues raised by the nature of available data on the oldest old.
The workshop participants also reported progress in their efforts to establish an International Database on Longevity (www.supercentenarians.org) for the use of population researchers. Ultimately, the web portal will also offer information about supercentenarians for the general public. DuPRI will be serving as the repository for U.S. data destined for the IDL, and will be helping the U.S. Social Security Administration's Bert Kestenbaum to gather and validate information on U.S. semi- and supercentenarians. The nature of data required to maximize the usefulness of the database as a research tool was an important topic of the meeting, as were privacy issues the resource may raise in various contributing countries.
Caselli and Vaupel opened the workshop by noting that the circa-1880 palazzo where the researchers were gathered was built five years after the birth of Jeanne-Louise Calment, the Frenchwoman who died in 1997 at age 122 and a half. Hers is the longest human lifespan ever documented and Calment would be invoked several times during the sessions as participants discussed whether she was an "outlier," and natural human longevity, as indicated by a mortality rate plateau, might be stabilizing closer to the age of 110.
Jutte Gampe of the MPIDR presented a preliminary analysis of mortality rate trajectories among centenarians in a range of countries, incorporating the latest data contributed to the IDL. Although she said she had difficulty "taming" some of the data "without making extra assumptions" for the highest ages, overall she said it looks as though a plateau might be starting around ages 106, 107 and 108. Vaupel noted that in the Swiss data, it appeared that a plateau began around age 104, but in general the plateau seems to be higher for individual countries than for the whole dataset.
Whether these plateaus in recent semi-supercentenarian cohorts are significant, or influenced by early-20th-century events like World War I and the "Spanish flu," is a question that would arise repeatedly as participants presented new data. For true supercentenarians, another challenge is the fact that too few "cases" make it hard to establish a trend amid the fluctuations in mortality rates, explained Jean-Marie Robine of INSERM, the French national science and medicine research agency, in an interview after the meeting. Robine, based in Montpellier, created the original database of the oldest old, upon which the new IDL builds. To date, the collection contains data on some 800 supercentarians and more than 1,000 semisupercentarians, but many of the meeting participants reported their plans to contribute hundreds of new cases this year.
After Gampe's talk, Vaupel commented that some 20 presentations on the subject of mortality at older ages were given at the Population Association of America meeting held a week before the Rome gathering, indicating a strong interest in the topic and the potential for a lot of researchers to use the IDL when it becomes available. One of the most pressing questions validated data can answer, he noted, is whether mortality rates are indeed plateauing (some aging researchers think they are not) and at what age.
In this context, Vaupel recapped the principles of the Gamma-Gompertz model for calculating mortality trajectories: "The observed increase in the force of mortality for the population is equal to the actual average increase for the individuals who make up the population minus the variance in the force of mortality among the people in the population...if you look at the rates of change...then the rate (at which) mortality goes up for the population is equal to the average rate it goes up for the individuals in the population minus the coefficient of variation of mortality among the individuals in the population, a measure of the heterogeneity of the population, multiplied by the level of mortality in the population."If there's no plateau, we might as well go home!" "So we have a correction factor," Vaupel continued, "so the rate of increase of mortality in the population is lower than the rate of increase for the individuals in the population. That correction factor is a product of two terms, one is how heterogenous the population is and the other is the level of mortality, so as the level of mortality goes up that reduction gets bigger and bigger. And at the point where we have the plateau, then the rate of increase for the population is zero, so the rate of increase for the individuals in the population has to be exactly equal to this measure of the heterogeneity of the population multiplied by the level of mortality in the population. And the fact that these two things have to be equal, and if you have a plateau, they have to be equal at all ages after the plateau, puts an enormous constraint on the mortality model. This equation has to hold at all ages. And that implies that there's one and only one valid mortality model, and that is that death rates have to be going up exponentially for individuals (as in Gompertz)...and there has to be a proportional hazards model so individuals differ from each other in their relative risks, and there has to be a distribution of relative risk that's gamma distributed. So the only model that works is the Gamma-Gompertz model. And one of the really amazing results of the work we've done is to show that this one and only mortality model describes mortality at the oldest ages where we have this plateau!
"How quickly do you get to the plateau?" he asked. "Well it turns out if you have the apparent increase in death rates in the population and you compare that to the actual increase in death rates in individuals in the population, and the ratio between the two is given by a very simple term, namely how far, relatively, are you away from the plateau. Suppose the plateau is .7 and the observed mortality is .35, then you're halfway to the plateau. When you're halfway to the plateau, the observed rate of mortality increase is half the rate of the individuals in the population. And as you get closer and closer to the plateau, the observed rate of increase goes to zero."
Participants in the 9th Supercentenarian Workshop met in May at the Palazzo Brancaccio in Rome. Photo courtesy of Jacques Vallin.
Referring to a recently published paper claiming there is no plateau, Vaupel joked, "If there's no plateau, we might as well go home!" Practically speaking, he said debates about maximum natural lifespans are likely to linger given that no one alive today is even close to Mme. Calment's record-setting age at death. And 1997, her year of death, is a long time ago, Vaupel said. Her record is "not going to be broken next year because nobody's 121. The oldest person now is 115, and there's only one, so it's going to be seven years at least, maybe more." Since fewer than 10 living people are 114 years old, he continued, if half die each year, "we're going to have to put up with these questions for 15 years or more."
To make matters worse, the number of people reaching the age of 110 appears to be stagnating in some countries. In the United States the rate of supercentenarian increase has slowed considerably, according to Kestenbaum, and is now expected to double every 20 years, instead of every 10 as was true in the latter half of the 20th century. In Japan the number of people reaching 110+ does not appear to be stagnating, but in the Nordic countries it is. Vaupel noted that the Japanese "take care of their old people — there's no euthanasia or deciding to let people die a natural death," whereas in many other countries different attitudes toward life-extending interventions might account for some of the differences. Others remarked that in Switzerland the rate is not slowing either, and perhaps an effect from World War I — which began nearly a century ago — could partly explain the supercentenarians who appear to be missing in some countries but not others.Database Updates
Robine gave a summary of efforts toward "legalizing" the IDL since the group's last workshop in Madrid in early 2011. Their desire to centralize the collection and validation of data on semi- and supercentenarians, and to open it to other researchers, led to the decision to move it from INSERM to the Max Planck Institute in Rostock, Germany. MPI has extensive experience in database management, but can only handle "nominative" data on behalf a third party. Therefore, Robine reported, he and MPIDR's Vladimir Jdanov have spent considerable time finalizing a contract between MPI and INED, the French national statistics agency, which has agreed to act as the third-party "client."
What has also become apparent during that time, however, is that going forward, national laws regarding data privacy will add complexity to the handling of personal information about centenarians. Researchers contributing data may have to anonymize it, depending on their nation's policies, but doing so may interfere with the validation of individual entries and checks to avoid duplicates, as well as with users' ultimate applications for the data. For now, the supercentenarian group can continue to do research with the material they've compiled and add new data, but MPIDR will also work with contributors to ensure their respective national laws are observed.Hints of Rising Lifespans in North America and the UK
After a break, Kestenbaum gave participants a look at new U.S. data he'll be contributing to the IDL. First, though, he described how his team finds candidate supercentenarians and validates their dates of birth and death. Starting with electronic SSA records, including applications for a Social Security Number, welfare rolls, the SSA Master Beneficiaries Record and the Master Death File, he also cross-references Medicare part B files. That paid insurance program's list is more likely to be up to date than the free Medicare part A program, he explained. Census records are also useful to verify that an individual's recorded age at various points in their lifetime is consistent with birthdate information. With three independent sources confirming a candidate's age, Kestenbaum adds that person to the U.S. list of validated semi- or supercentenarians. Unfortunately, older SSA records are kept on microfiche, "in a cave in Pennsylvania 200 miles from headquarters," he said, making validation time-consuming.
So he has focused on thoroughly validating a five-percent sample of U.S. supercentenarians. The first cohort he completed and added to the IDL was born between 1870 and 1889. Of 341 supercentenarian cases in the sample, 90 percent were female, 15 percent were African American and the greatest age at death in the group was 119. The next cohort he's working on is made up of those born between 1890 and 1894. Including deaths through 2009, there are 148 cases in the sample — also 90 percent female and 15 percent black. Their greatest attained age at death so far is 116. But, Kestenbaum said, he and his colleague Renee Ferguson hope to verify some additional cases, so the total of supercentenarians in the sample should go up.
The next cohort, born between 1895 and 1899, contains just 58 cases right now, but those born in 1899 would only have reached 110 in 2009, so Kestenbaum expects many more to be added. Whether an upward trend in the number of Americans reaching supercentenarian status will continue, however, remains to be seen. There were 37 supercentenarians in the 1870-1874 cohort, 67 in the next five-year group, 99 in the next and 133 in the next. Looking at the equivalent moment in the 1890-1894 cohort's history, he said, "they had 115 of their 148 deaths by that time, so they were three-quarters of the way there." The 1895-1899 cohort may end up being "late bloomers" and catch up to their predecessors, he noted. But at present, "It looks low, and we don't know why." Casselli commented that a similar dip seen in Italian data has been attributed to WWI and the 1918 flu pandemic — both events that killed disproportionate numbers of young adults at the time when this cohort would have been in their late teens and early twenties.
Bernard Desjardins and Robert Bourbeau from the University of Montreal took a different approach to sampling the Canadian population, in part, they explained, to ease the validation process in a nation of 10 provinces, where all civil registration is done on the provincial level. Civil registration in Canada is fairly recent as well, Bourbeau said, so they knew they would need to rely on baptismal records. They decided to focus on Quebec, which has 25 percent of Canada's population, and is largely Catholic. Beginning with the provincial death registry, they found that between 1985 and 2009 there were 6,503 deaths of centenarians, of whom 5,008 were born in Quebec. (They eliminated immigrants because their birth records would be difficult to retrieve). Further narrowing the sample to deaths over the age of 105 left 372 candidates."Politicians are taking note of the implications"
Limiting themselves to Quebec-born French-Canadian Catholics gave the team a 90 percent success rate in validating individuals through parish and census records. In a cohort born between 1877 and 1904, they found 259 candidates, of whom only 11 were supercentenarians, all female. Together with the 332 cases the team has already sent to the IDL from Quebec, the data show an age-specific mortality rate of around .5, they noted, in keeping with a plateau beginning around age 105. Citing data on mortality among French Canadians born in the 17th and 18th centuries, Borbeau and Desjardins remarked that a mortality rate plateau started a decade earlier — around age 93 — during that period.
In the United Kingdom, a similar gain of nearly a decade is detectable in more recent mortality statistics, said Adrian Gallop of the Government Actuary's Department. In the 1960s, an 85-year-old man had a 20 percent chance of dying, but by the early 1990s that same risk level was not reached until age 92. To identify British supercentenarians, Gallop explained, his team also begins with a list of deaths, from the Office of National Statistics, then seeks out birth and death certificates to glean more information. Since 1992, he said, there have been 97 deaths at age 110 or above in the UK, of which 71 cases have been age-validated. Among 13 of those individuals born overseas, half were from Pakistan. For the great majority, the listed cause of death was merely "old age" (55 cases). Of the remaining individuals, pneumonia is the cause given for 23 cases, Alzheimer's disease for six and cardiovascular/cerebrovascular disease for another six.
Noting some other interesting trends in the data he'd analyzed, Gallop saw a likely effect of WWI in the form of missing male centenarians. In addition, he observed, people born in the 1930s had higher mortality rates than those born before or afterwards. Still, the rate at which people are reaching ages of 100 and more is rising — the UK had a projected 11,600 centenarians in 2010 and 100,000 are projected for 2035. Politicians are taking note of the implications, as well Gallop said: In May a proposal was made in parliament to raise retirement benefits based on longevity projections for the nation.Politics and Population in Italy
The workshop's host country also has an eye toward its growing elderly population, according to Marco Marsilli of Istat, the Italian National Institute for Statistics. The government wants to improve the accuracy of population registries in general, he explained, and Istat's semisupercentenarian survey is a formal part of the National Statistical Plan. Finding and validating Italy's semi- and supercentenarians is especially difficult, though, because civil registries have traditionally been kept by Italy's 8,000-plus municipalities, and population data generated locally tend to be considerably inflated to bolster funding. As an example, Marsilli offered, when he first looked at population registries for the city of Rome, he found 900 male and 1,665 female living Romans born before 1904. Demographic models had projected there would be just 54 men and 69 women over age 105. Once he completed his validation process, the final count was one man and 18 women.
When seeking and validating semi- and supercentenarians for the national registry, Marsilli employs a mixture of tactics. In addition to referencing official records, he tracks media mentions of centenarian birthday celebrations, gathers feedback from relatives about the candidates, interviews municipal officials and sometimes resorts to unofficial "head hunters" for additional detective work. Having completed three surveys, Marsilli is in the midst of his fourth. He has so far validated 633 individuals in Italy older than 105, 17 of whom reached at least 110. The oldest living person in his registry at present is Giuseppe Mirabella, of Sicily, who is about three months shy of his 111th birthday. A slightly more senior gentleman just died in March at age 111.
The incidence of semisupercentenarians in Italy is low but rising, according to Marsilli, who said the number grew by 120 percent between the 2001 and 2011 national censuses. The ratio of women to men is strikingly higher in the north than in the south, he added. But that is in line with trends at younger old ages in southern regions like Sicily and Sardinia, where mortality rates are about equal for men and women.Data Gaps in South America and Asia
On day two of the workshop, discussion turned to countries beyond Europe and North America. Cassio Turra of CEDEPLAR at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, began the session by describing prospects for finding and validating Brazilian supercentenarians, based on his initial research.
Civil registry began with independence from Portugal in 1888, he explained, but registry didn't become systematic until after a 1930 military coup ended the Republic. More recent Brazilian governments have been focused on development concerns and therefore demographers have tended to be interested in tracking infant mortality and other measures of population health at younger ages, Turra said. But interest is now broadening to include compositional changes in the population and connections between early life conditions and mortality at all ages.
Turra thinks the population of semi- and supercentenarians is likely to be relatively small in Brazil, despite its large population, because mortality is high. Finding and validating cases will be a challenge. Census figures appear to be inflated and unreliable. For instance, the 2000 Brazilian census results show centenarians making up 5.1 percent of the population, while the figure for the U.S. the same year was 0.3 percent. The national social security administration has better records, but they are only accessible to researchers in anonymized form. Since the 1980s, all death certificates are sent to the national health ministry, making that agency a potential partner in identifying recent cases.
After describing several examples of validated Brazilian supercentenarians, Turra concluded that targeting a search among higher-SES populations — both because they tend to enjoy better health and to have good documentation — could be fruitful. Workshop participants discussed the pros and cons of that approach, including the major problem of age-ascertainment bias that could result. The same issue would come up again later with regard to non-academic efforts to track down supercentenarians through media mentions and similar sources that don't provide population-representative samples. The tactic was deemed more likely to find people at sensational ages like 115, leading to underestimation of 109- and 110-year-olds. (Reference)
Media attention creates a different kind of problem in Japan, where centenarians are extensively tracked and documented by the government, according to Yasuhiko Saito, of Nihon University Kaikan Daini Bekkan in Tokyo. Recent efforts to protect the privacy of Japan's extremely elderly have led to a closing-off of research access to some government data without explicit permission from each family. "Koseki" registries recording every birth, death and major life event in a family, which Saito described in detail in the group's last monograph, have been a valuable resource for centenarian research in Japan. In Taiwan, which was part of Japan until 1945, there is a similar family-register system, Saito noted. He is just beginning preliminary investigations of supercentenarians in Taiwan — which is not far from Okinawa with its famously long-lived residents — and in Singapore, a wealthy city-state in Southeast Asia with a high life-expectancy at birth that is similar to Japan's.How to Make it to 105 and Beyond
Whether wealth, parenthood, lifestyle or any other factors stand out as potential contributors to extreme longevity was the topic of the next presentations. Axel Skytthe and Bernard Jeune, of the University of Southern Denmark, gave updated numbers for validated supercentenarians in Denmark. Based on deaths since 1968, they total 378 women and 58 men. At present, there are no living supercentenarians in the Nordic countries, they reported. But there's reason to hope there will be more, since the Danish civil registry has 925 living centenarians of January 1, 2012. And the percentage of centenarians reaching specific age milestones has been going up slightly, but steadily, according to Skytthe. The number reaching 105, for example, has risen by 1.4 percent annually."At present, there are no living super-centenarians in the Nordic countries."
Jeune described insights gained so far from four waves of interviews with centenarians since 1998. He found no large differences in survival by gender or socioeconomic status once individuals have passed age 100. Body mass index is not predictive, despite the importance of BMI in the 70s and up to about age 90. Social relations, such as contacts with children and other relatives as well as bereavement, all important for nonagenarians, also have little effect for centenarians. Similarly, a positive outlook marks a clear difference in probability of survival between ages 92 and 102, Jeune noted, but not between 100 and 105. The same goes for self-reported health status, he said. In short, all risk factors become less important with age, and lots of things that are predictive of survival for octogenarians and nonagenarians are no longer significant between 100 and 105. What is important, Jeune found, is grip strength — a significant survival difference goes along with each one-kilo increase in grip pressure. Housing situation, as a measure of independence, is also telling. Being independent, not being cognitively impaired, generally having few chronic diseases and good genes (i.e., APO-E status) are the characteristics that seem to be shared by those nearing semi-supercentenarian status, Jeune said.
Vaupel briefly mentioned an attempt to trace the roots of such robustness in a study of Sardinian centenarians on which he collaborated with Caselli and numerous Italian colleagues. The massive project involved four years of interviews and research, and more than 200 centenarians, about equally divided between men and women. Signs of general good health, even early in the centenarians' lives, were among the more striking findings. Most centenarians had had children, but fewer than the control subjects did, and often later in life. Women who had a child after age 40, for example, had a higher chance of living to 100. Longevity in a centenarian's mother also seemed to be predictive, and infant mortality among the children of both centenarian men and women was significantly lower than among controls. But such results could support a variety of conclusions, Vaupel remarked. Maybe they signal inherited biological sources of health and longevity, or maybe centenarians practiced better hygiene and thereby kept themselves and their children healthier, he speculated. Maybe the centenarians were better cared-for as they aged because their kids survived.
Another unknown that needs further study, Vaupel noted, is the reason behind a possible slowdown in the rate at which people are reaching semi- and supercentenarian status. Changes in modern environments and lifestyles are possibilities. It might also be because frailer people are making it to 100 thanks to medical interventions. That would lead to more deaths at low-centenarian ages and the statistical appearance of a slowdown, whereas in reality less-frail centenarians are living longer. How to get to age 100 and how to persist as a centenarian are, therefore, two different questions.A Glance Backward
To further explore the question of whether human lifespans are indeed increasing, the meeting's final presentations looked at the mortality of centenarians and younger people in past centuries. Michel Poulain, of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and Talinn University in Estonia, described how records improved in Belgium during the French regime in the late 18th century, when life tables and age-at-death statistics were first kept. A national census and precise statistical records were introduced in the 1840s. With the help of a retired physician, Dany Chambre, who investigated more than 1,000 candidates, Poulain used the Belgian data to validate 402 cases of centenarians between 1751 and 1915. Cases were sporadic until about 1815, according to Chambre, but after that they emerged almost yearly. Before 1840, the sex ratio of the group was 1.35 women for every man, Poulain noted, but between 1840 and 1915 the ratio rose to 2.33. And mortality rates among both men and women in this group ranged between 0.4 and 0.6.
Bourbeau and Desjardins presented their analysis of modal ages of adult deaths in Quebec and other countries. The earliest life tables they examined, from Breslau, Germany, covered the years 1687-1691. But, strangely, the numbers of deaths were about the same at every age between 40 and 70, so a peak age at which the most people died (the "modal age of death") was hard to pin down. Swedish data from the 1750s provided a modal age of death of about 72 (range 70-75). In France, Switzerland and The Netherlands the modal age also hovered in the early 70s (ranges 71-72, <70 and 73-74, respectively) between about 1850 and 1870. The team's best quality data was from Quebec, where they found a slight rise from the 18th century to the 19th. In a sample between the years 1750 and 1754, deaths after age 20 peaked in the early 70s, for example. Between 1740 and 1799, that age rises to the mid-70s. Workshop participants debated whether this change could represent part of a steady increase in lifespans. The beginnings of a well established "health transition" in the northern hemisphere and Europe between 1850 and 1950 might be reflected in the 19th century mortality patterns, some noted. Or, slightly lower modal ages of death in the mid-18th century could reflect a dip in lifespans due to wars and other hardships in the 17th and early 18th centuries, others suggested. Without more background on conditions at the cohorts' time of birth and of death, everyone agreed that little could be concluded but the data were intriguing.
With those last indications of how much more there is to discover about human lifespans and mortality, the workshop wrapped up. The question of when Mme. Calment's record longevity will be equaled or broken remains, but participants took their leave with renewed enthusiasm for adding new data to the IDL and using it to further explore what her example might say about human potential. They'll be reporting back at the next Supercentenarian Workshop, scheduled for the Spring of 2014.
A prominent paper originally published in Science on the genetics of longevity in centenarians has recently been retracted. Research professor and DUPRI Associate Anatoli Yashin was skeptical from the start. "I didn't believe it," he says. "Any model that plans to predict lifespan based only on genetic components is not quite correct. The environmental contribution to longevity is huge."
With support from the U.S. National Institute on Aging, a group of U.S. and European scientists met in May at Duke's Population Research Institute to share findings from their ongoing work. The eventual goal is to identify interventions—public health policies, medical treatments, behavior advice—that prolong survival so more people lead longer, healthier lives.
The Duke Population Research Institute (DUPRI) is pleased to announce that it has been awarded a T32 training grant from the National Institute of Aging at the National Institutes of Health. Funding five graduate students and two post-doctoral students who wish to engage in rigorous training in the general fields of social, medical, and economic demography of aging, the program focuses on five substantive areas:
1.Biodemography, including indices and models of aging, vitality, and frailty, 2.Health disparities (by race/ethnicity, sex, socioeconomic status) among the elderly; 3.International comparative studies of the health of aging populations in both developed and developing countries; 4.Important life course transitions (e.g., family changes, work and retirement, morbidity and disability) that relate to the health and well-being of aging persons; and 5.The economics of aging.
This postdoctoral program is administered by DUPRI and is directed by Kenneth C. Land, John Franklin Crowell Professor of Sociology and Demography and Director of the DUPRI Center for Population Health and Aging. Originally awarded to Duke more than 20 years ago, Duke has been able to continually renew this grant. Historically, it has largely trained students in the field of Sociology. With the growth of population sciences on campus, the renewed T32 proposes interdisciplinary training and access to fellowship funds in all departments that have students with an interest in Aging research.
“I am grateful to the Sociology Department for their willingness to expand the program to other departments and I very much believe that all departments will have better scholars as a result of this interdisciplinary training,” says Seth Sanders, Professor of Economics and Public Policy and Director of DUPRI.
With a goal of advancing innovative interdisciplinary demographic and population research, DUPRI is an interdisciplinary research organization bringing together faculty from the biological, economic, mathematical, psychological, statistical, sociological, and policy sciences at Duke. For more information on DUPRI programs and training, please contact DUPRI Training Director, M. Giovanna Merli, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Sociology, at firstname.lastname@example.org
America's obesity epidemic is so called for a reason. Roughly one in three adults is obese, yet Americans are living longer than ever. In a June 30 article featured in The Economist, DuPRI professor and founding director James Vaupel expresses cautious optimism on rising obesity rates in the US having a negative impact on future progress in life expectancy.
A recent article posted by BBC News examines the widening gap in life expectancy rates between the US and other Western countries. Risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and tobacco use have been linked to a slowed increase towards longevity in Americans when compared to that of Britons or Canadians. "When you look at life expectancy at 65 or 75, the US performs rather well" says Duke researcher Svetlana Ukraintseva. Where the US lags behind is what happens at a much younger age.
James W Vaupel's career is featured in The Lancet. As the founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, Vaupel has helped to revolutionize the statistics-bound field by taking a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates both human and non-human biology, mathematics, genetics, and public policy. His findings, which have often provoked debate, have changed perceptions about the demography of aging.