Centenarian Aids Researchers in Uncovering the Mysteries of Longevity

October 29, 2001 -- (BRONX,NY) -- In 1950, Helen Reichert (then Helen Faith Keane) could be seen daily on WABD-TV's "For Your Information," offering women straightforward "how-to" advice on topics ranging from how to play the piano to what to ask your doctor about breast cancer.

"The ladies would write me with their questions and, when I received sufficient interest in a particular topic, I would seek an expert who could address it," she explains.

The former TV show hostess, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell in 1925, will soon celebrate her 100th birthday on Sunday, November 11th. If the program were still on today, Mrs. Reichert might be the expert sought to help viewers understand what it takes to live a long and healthy life.

"The only problem with that is that I haven't a clue," she says when asked. "I think I've just been lucky."

She adds, "It certainly isn't the result of good health habits. I've been a smoker, kept late hours, and don't much care for vegetables."

Despite not knowing the secret to her longevity, Mrs. Reichert is already helping others to understand her "luck" - most notably scientists, like Dr. Nir Barzilai at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, who believe the answer may lie in the genes of people who live a very long and healthy life.

Dr. Barzilai is studying the genes of the "oldest old" among Jewish elderly, aged 95 and older, to learn whether there may be a genetic factor that predisposes these individuals from succumbing to disease. Mrs. Reichert and all three of her siblings (a sister and two brothers) are all taking part in the study. (Her youngest brother, Peter, is an exception to the usual participants, being only 92.  Her sister, Lee is 98 and her other brother, Irving, is 96.) The four siblings also are participants in two other longevity studies.

"By using the more homogeneous genetic make-up among Ashkenazi Jews, we've been able to isolate some repetitive genetic patterns, which have helped to shed light on factors influencing longevity," explains Dr. Barzilai.

One such factor is the presence of a more favorable lipid profile (HDL-and LDL-cholesterol levels) among centenarians and their offspring.  Dr. Barzilai and his Einstein colleagues found that, compared to the controls, the centenarians and their offspring had higher HDL and lower LDL - both of which represent a healthier lipid profile, particularly in guarding against heart disease and arteriosclerosis.

Dr. Barzilai, who is director of Einstein's Institute on Aging Research, as well as an associate professor of medicine at the medical school, first became interested in exploring the mechanisms of aging while studying the ways in which caloric restriction expanded lifespan in animals. His results in the laboratory led him to question whether similar factors contributed to longevity in humans.

"Ultimately, we hope to develop medications to modulate the aging process and its attendant diseases," he says.

As for Mrs. Reichert and the anticipation of her approaching centennial, she says, "It's on Armistice Day, so many countries celebrate my birthday. I'm impressed that my birthday has international significance."