The Eternal Jew – A Short Ashkenazi?
By Liz Paratz
Longevity today is impressive. In the Torah, Moses is an inspiring figure and lives until a suitably-inspiring 120 years old. Not only that, “His eye had not dimmed, and his vigor had not diminished.” Hence the Jewish blessing until 120, also heard as ad meah ve’esrim shana in Hebrew, or biz hundert un tsvantsik in Yiddish.
Yet Jeanne Calment (the modern world’s oldest confirmed person) has already outpaced Moses, living to 122 with relatively undimmed eyes and undiminished vigour. It’s true she didn’t lead a slave nation to freedom but she did recall meeting Vincent van Gogh as a girl, which must count for something.
Other super-centenarians (defined as 110+ years old) are similarly vigorous; Bettie Wilson, for example, underwent a cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) at the age of 114. Meanwhile, medical journal articles now commonly bear titles like ‘Is cardiac surgery justified in patients in the ninth decade of life?’ – and incidentally, you should know that article had a sample size of 101 patients recruited over only 3 years from just one hospital, no less, and a 30-day survival rate of 96.8% for patients undergoing valvular replacements. You could practically get higher mortality from replacing your false teeth.
And in 2006, the Australian Bureau of Statistics altered age options on the Australian census from ‘0-100’ to ‘0-115’ for the first time. A new ‘115+ years old’ box provides for the needs of those Australian super-centenarians.
Are there any downsides to this longevity? Perhaps Queen Elizabeth II, herself the longest-lived monarch in English history, might be the most prominent example of longevity fatigue. Previously, ‘a card from the Queen’ seemed to be the number 1 goal of most 95+-year-olds. Yet now when you reach 100, the Governor-General will send a card on the Queen’s behalf, with the Prime Minister and Governor-General sending a card every following year.
The Queen will be in touch again only if you make it to 105. (Of interest, apparently the Queen also used to send a card to families who had a multiple birth of 3 or more children, but with the advent of IVF and Octomums she has had to stop those cards too).
However, we’re not all guaranteed to wear out our first five walking-sticks. The statistics behind increasing longevity is intriguing, and – why wouldn’t it be? – filled with Jewish angles.
Should an eighty-year-old ever buy green bananas?
What makes a long life expectancy? That simple numerical value ‘life expectancy’ is an endpoint for mortality at all parts of the life-span.
The key thing to appreciate is the difference between ‘life expectancy’ and ‘life-span’. Life expectancy measures average outcomes on a population level; some people live to 3 days old, some live to 100 years old. On the other hand, life-span describes the limit to life for an individual.
Confusion on these definitions seems anecdotally pretty common. I remember a friend saying in late 2001 (in defence, we were only 14 at the time), ‘I don’t understand why America is bothering to try and find bin Laden – the other day I read that life expectancy in Afghanistan is only about 44 years; and he is 44 years old already, so he should die any day now anyway!’
Likewise, an elderly lady in my current GP rotation recently turned up very distressed, having read in the local Courier that life expectancy in Ballarat was very high; about 80 years old for women. But that was not good news at all in this lady’s eyes – because she was 82. What with her acute anxiety, and subsequent hyperventilation and angina, she almost turned the statistic into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But of course, bin Laden is now 53 (as far as anyone knows) and the little old lady was reassured that she could buy green bananas, because life expectancy does not equal life-span. And hence, an increase in Australia’s life-expectancy does not necessarily correlate with an increase in life-span.
For example, the dramatic jump in Australian life expectancy (57 in 1900 to 80 in 2000) had little to do with ‘people living longer’ per se. Rather, it was the result of change at the other end of the spectrum ; a dramatic drop in infant mortality. There were always 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds around in the early 1900s, but their achievements were masked by the high rate of infant mortality at the time.
An interesting paper was published by Dr Jay Olshansky in the journal Science, entitled ‘In Search of Methuselah : Estimating the Upper Limits to Human Longevity’. According to Dr Olshansky (who uses US population data), current early-life mortality is now so low that even if we were able to magically completely abolish all deaths before 50, this would now only increase current life expectancy by 3.5 years. Furthermore, even if overnight we were also able to cure all cardiovascular disease, all cancers and diabetes, this would still not allow us to push past a life expectancy of about 90 years old.
In other words, our mortality curve has now skewed to the right, with most deaths concentrated at older ages. The big question is, can we now actually expand the range of the curve and increase our lifespan? Or will the peak of the mortality curve always be compressed against a fixed upper limit, say 120 years?
And, if 120 years appears to be the invisible ceiling that we just cannot break through – barring a few outlier Jeanne Calments – could until 120 even become the new Jewish curse of the 3rd millennium?
Ashkenazi inbreeding – does it hold the secret to immortality?
It may seem unlikely, but our famed Ashkenazi inbreeding – usually to the detriment of our health – may in fact hold the answer to augmenting lifespans. Both our curious life expectancy trends, and the lifespans of our longest-lived are intriguing longevity researchers. To completely decontextualise the words of Mark Twain, researchers are now seeking to answer the question ‘what is the secret of his (the Jew’s) immortality?’
Firstly, on a population level, Jewish communities’ mortality data has commonly diverged from wider community trends. For example, a study examining Jewish mortality from 1963 to 1987 on Rhode Island found that, compared to the ‘total white population’, Jewish deaths were proportionally clustered towards more advanced ages, with Jewish males particularly exhibiting reduced mortality.
Other American studies, including one with the extremely glamorous title ‘Mortality patterns in elderly American Jews’, have supported these findings regarding Jewish men, showing reduced death from smoking-related causes and prostate cancer.
And this effect is not limited to America; another study in Russia in 2004 with a sample size of 445, 000 again upheld the disproportionate good health of Jewish men. Rather shockingly, at the age of 20 the life expectancy for Russian men is 11 years less than for Russian Jewish men. One explanation proposed by the researchers was that reduced alcohol intake might play a large part in these findings.
Perhaps all this data finally puts paid to the old misogynist joke – ‘Why do Jewish men die before their wives? Because they want to.’ Although it has to be noted that Jewish women do still win out overall, with 75% of British Jewish centenarians being female (incidentally, in another example of disproportionate life expectancy, the proportion of Jewish centenarians in Britain is currently estimated to sit at 3 times the national rate).
Life Span too
But Jews are also an object of fascination on an individual level. Specifically, Ashkenazis are right up there with fruit-flies in the loving eyes of geneticists, since we provide a largely-homogeneous population for genetic examination.
The reasons for this homogeneity are strong founder effect (due to pogroms shrinking the Ashkenazi population centuries ago), followed by what was generously described in one journal article as ‘a mating pattern characterized by high levels of endogamy and consanguinity.’
And genetic trawls through our incestuous mating patterns have generated some interesting data….
It would appear that a certain mutation of the insulin-like growth factor receptor (IGFR-1) is increased in frequency in long-lived Ashkenazi Jews. Interestingly, in women this gene variant is associated with short stature. Other populations in which it apparently contributes to longevity include worms, flies and mice. I guess it’s always nice to discover a new branch of the family….
Another finding is that Ashkenazi centenarians tend to have a very high HDL level (the ‘good cholesterol’, aka high-density lipoprotein), with the HDL molecules themselves being bigger-than-average too, thanks to a mutation of the CETP gene. Among 70 year-olds, 8% had the CETP mutation; among 100 year-olds, the proportion increased to 25%. Not only that, but the CETP gene controlling HDL levels has also been linked to ‘exceptional cognitive function, and protecting against dementia’.
From this research on Ashkenazi Jews, journalists and scientists have proposed that perhaps one day gene therapies may be developed to make the whole world a little bit more Ashkenazi and long-lived. At which point, perhaps we will have to update our long-held until 120 to a more impressive until 969.
But until that time, we may have to rely on just changing ourselves phenotypically rather than genotypically as best we can. So really, it’s quite simple. Shrink yourself, swell your HDL, don’t smoke, don’t drink, stay thin, stay Jewish, gender-swap to female if required, plus or minus some strenuous daily Sudoku.
And on that note, I wish you long life.