In a story guaranteed to raise the hopes of geriatrics everywhere, The Independent last week introduced the world to an Indonesian man named Mbah Gotho and crowned the somewhat reluctant celebrity as the world’s oldest person.
Gotho is 145 years old. He has outlived all his siblings, his four wives, and all his children. His sight is failing, so he spends his days mostly sitting around and listening to the radio. He still enjoys smoking cigarettes and credits his long life to “patience.” Steve Horvath would argue that he should also thank his DNA.
Horvath, a UCLA geneticist, and his research team recently published the results of a study suggesting that people age at different rates, depending upon how effective their body’s methylation process works. Lifestyle has some effect, Horvath found, but it’s not as influential as you might think. Plenty of “perfectly healthy” folks die before their time. Gotho is simply one of the lucky ones.
“We discovered that 5 percent of the population ages at a faster biological rate, resulting in a shorter life expectancy,” Horvath says. “Accelerated aging increases these adults’ risk of death by 50 percent at any age.”
This apparent randomness can be unsettling if all you’re yearning for is the chance to hobble into your hundreds, which seems to be a bit of trend these days. The centenarian population in the United States grew by 65 percent between 1980 and 2010. Well over 50,000 Americans are now celebrating triple-digit birthdays. It doesn’t seem quite fair that some quirk of genetic fate might prohibit us from joining that increasingly less-exclusive club.
But that’s the way it is, says Horvath. “While a healthful lifestyle may help extend life expectancy, our innate aging process prevents us from cheating death forever.”
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Nearly 30 years ago, one of my youthful basketball idols, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, collapsed and died of a heart attack during a pick-up game in Pasadena, Calif. He was 40 years old, his pro basketball career had carried him into the Hall of Fame, and there was nothing he liked better than romping around on the hardcourt with a bunch of hoop junkies. His last words were telling: “I feel great.”
I was thinking of Maravich last weekend when I heard that an old basketball buddy, Jerry, had suffered the same fate as “Pistol” Pete. Knowing Jerry’s game pretty well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was clearing the boards and starting a fast break when his heart gave out. He was pushing 60, but still played every Saturday morning at a local gym. I would guess that he wouldn’t want to end it all any other way.
Those two late hoopsters, I would argue, were better off than poor Mbah Gotho, who despite his legendary reliance on patience reportedly purchased a gravestone 24 years ago, at the ripe young age of 121, and has been waiting to put it to use ever since. “What I want,” he told The Independent, “is to die.”