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The oldest person in the world — and the oldest ever Japanese person — is Misao Okawa. She lives in Osaka and is 116. She’ll be 117 in March.


Okawa is the last living Japanese person to have experienced the 19th century. Not that she can remember much about it: She was born in 1898. But get this: A few years before she was born, a U.S. manufacturer in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was making harpoons for whaling. And in 2007, one of their harpoons, made around 1890, was found in the neck of a bowhead whale caught off Alaska.

That means the whale, which was an adult, was older when it was killed than Okawa is now. And it survived at least one hunting attempt more than 100 years before it was finally caught. It turns out that bowhead whales may be able to survive for at least 200 years — and without the age-related diseases we often succumb to. How do they do it?

There’s no easy answer. When newspapers report on supercentenarians — people who are older than 110 — the elderly are always asked for their “secret” to long life.

Okawa ascribes her longevity to sushi and sleep. Britain’s oldest ever man, Henry Allingham, who died at the age of 113 in 2009, said “cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women” helped him survive. They probably just say the first thing that comes into their heads to make the media go away, but you’ve got to hand it to them — there’s a cool kind of nonchalance that seems to come with great age.

I look forward to the time when a supercentenarian says they just had good genes or they fluked it. Aside from lifestyle, people also need genetics and luck to break lifespan records. The genes you are born with go a long way in determining if you become stricken with disease and whether you are able to fight them off. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, however, the best genes in the world won’t save you.

The genetics of aging are horrendously complicated. There are genes that are known to be risk factors for the main causes of death — heart disease, cancers and Type 2 diabetes — but there are other genes that have protective effects. This is where the bowhead whale comes in.

This is truly a mighty animal, second in size only to the blue whale, the biggest animal that has ever lived.

They have more than 1,000 times more cells than we have — which makes you think they’d have 1,000 times more likelihood of getting cancer. But apparently not. What’s going on?

The bowhead has now had its genome sequenced. The scientists behind the study, published in the journal Cell Reports, say they have identified key genetic differences in bowheads compared to other mammals. Alterations seen in bowhead genes related to cell division, DNA repair, cancer growth and aging may help increase its longevity and its cancer resistance.

“Our understanding of species’ differences in longevity is very poor, and thus our findings provide novel candidate genes for future studies,” said Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. “My view is that species evolved different tricks to have a longer lifespan, and by discovering the tricks used by the bowhead we may be able to apply those findings to humans in order to fight age-related diseases.”

We know that size isn’t everything when it comes to life span. The diminutive naked mole rat — a hairless, subterranean African rodent — can live to be 30 years old. If we lived as long relative to body size as naked mole rats, we’d live to be 600. Naked mole rats also do this without getting cancer.

So it seems that some animals — and perhaps some people — have natural mechanisms that suppress cancer.

To test this, Magalhaes and his team want to breed mice modified to have various genes from bowhead whales.

The team hopes this will allow them to determine the importance of different genes for longevity and disease resistance.

Don’t hold your breath for a magic gene. A paper was published a couple of months ago showing the results of a gene study of supercentenarians.

The scientists, led by Stuart Kim of Stanford University in California, compared the genomes of 17 people aged 110 or older, with the genomes of 34 people aged 21 to 79. The hope was to find some standout genetic differences in the super-old people, but the team were unable to find them.

The bowhead whale is the first large whale to have its genome sequenced.

As well as clues to longevity, Magalhaes says the new information the gene provides may reveal physiological adaptations related to size. Whale cells have a much lower metabolic rate than those of smaller mammals; one gene involved in thermoregulation, called UCP1, seems to be related to metabolic differences in whale cells.

Let’s imagine that despite the nondiscovery of longevity genes in the Kim study, we do eventually find a suite of genes that promote long life.

It’s not out of the question. Gene tweaking in a nematode worm has boosted its lifespan fivefold.

Let’s ignore ethical concerns and suppose we could do that in humans. Say we could insert these genes into the human genome and allow people to live for a very long time.

How long could we live for? Two hundred years? Five hundred? We’re firmly in the realm of science fiction now or, to be charitable, speculative science. I imagine that in a couple of hundred years we’ll be able to transfer the brain (or at least the consciousness) to a younger, better body, rather than have to struggle on with the one we were born with.

Returning to Misao Okawa, her husband died in 1931, and she has never remarried. 1931! She has children and even great-grandchildren, but that’s 84 years on her own.

I know she’s had plenty of time to get over his death but humans have not evolved to deal with such long expanses of time. People are different but some elderly people I’ve known have said they are ready for death, that it’s not something they are particularly concerned about.

Our overt concern for the short term is one of the reasons the climate is warming so worryingly fast. It would be a good thing for the planet if humans had as selfish and personal an interest in the long term as we do in the short. But what it would mean for our mental state, I’m not exactly sure.