Centenarian microbiome hints at longevity

It’s easy to see why people who have lived beyond 100 years may give you some of their favorite longevity tips. We’re fascinated by those who stay healthier than most, whether it’s sound advice about managing your responsibilities or sleep tips. Researchers have found that centenarians may have some answers hidden in their guts.

The study, published in Nature, examined the gut microbiomes of three groups of Japanese people: 150 centenarians, 112 elderly people, and 47 people aged 21-55. According to Arpana Gupta, PhD, associate professor in UCLA’s Division of Digestive Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine, a majority of the centenarians reported no major chronic illnesses.

Despite the uncanny absence of chronic conditions (such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer) among centenarians, researchers did find that their guts produced certain secondary bile acids that protected against certain types of bacterial infection, including those from drug-resistant bacteria. Niket Sonpal, MD, an internist and gastroenterologist in New York City and faculty member at Touro College of Medicine, says that they boost the immune system in ways we don’t fully understand.

Researchers found that secondary bile acids are effective against certain types of bacteria called Clostridium difficile and Enterococcus faecium that cause inflammation and diarrhea in humans. In addition to killing harmful pathogens in the gut, bile also disinfects.

Why is this important to us? Despite these new findings, we are still unable to determine why these centenarians possess specific secondary bile acid-producing bacteria. Dr. Sonpal says that the microbiome changes over your lifetime depending on what you eat, what you do, genetics, etc., and so there may be something about this cohort…in that region of Japan, [which may have enabled this microbiome makeup].

Therefore, we cannot artificially replicate a microbiome advantage for the rest of the population because it can’t be determined what factors affect it. “[The specific bacterium] is just one factor among many factors, so giving the bacterium to the other people might not work,” says Dr. Sonpal.

As for long-term consequences and the impact of diet, lifestyle, and genetics, Dr. Gupta says these findings should be interpreted with caution. Unless we do longitudinal studies involving a more geographically and ethnically diverse sample, we cannot draw causal conclusions regarding the effects of these secondary bile acids, for example, preventing age-related degeneration. The research literature needs to be expanded in order to identify ‘integrated systems biology’, which is a process which combines social-cultural influences with how the gut communicates with other systems of the body, such as the brain.

The findings were still encouraging according to both experts. The researcher suggests that if researchers can gain clarity around these variables, they may be able to use that knowledge to help others achieve similar protective microbiome compositions and potentially live longer, healthier lives.

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