WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) A team of researchers led by Boston University's Thomas Perls and Paola Sebastiani are closing in on genes that can help people live to 100 or older.
And no, it's not a "fountain of youth," so don't give up on diet and exercise just yet.
In an early step to understanding the pathways that lead to surviving into old age, researchers report in Thursday's online edition of the journal Science that most people who live to 100 or older share some helpful genes.
That doesn't mean there's a quick test to determine who will live long and who won't - a healthy lifestyle and other factors are also significant.
Nevertheless, Perls said the research might point the way to determining who will be vulnerable to specific diseases sooner, and there may be a possibility, down the road, to help guide therapy for them.
The team looked at the genomes of 1,055 Caucasians born between 1890 and 1910 and compared them with 1,267 people born later.
By studying genetic markers the researchers were able to predict with 77 percent accuracy which gene groups came from people over 100.
"Seventy-seven percent is very high accuracy for a genetic model," said Sebastiani. "But 23 percent error rate also shows there is a lot that remains to be discovered."
The centenarians could be fitted into 19 groups with different genetic signatures, they found. Some genes correlate with longer survival, while others delayed the onset of various age-related diseases such as dementia.
"The signatures show different paths of longevity," Sebastiani said.
In general, the centenarians remained in good health longer than average, not developing diseases associated with old age until in their 90s, according to the study.
The researchers were surprised, Sebastiani said, that they found little difference between the centenarians and the control group in genetic variations that predispose people to certain illnesses.
"We found that what predisposes to a long life is not lack of disease associated variants, but the presence of protective variants," she said at a briefing.
In addition, 40 percent of "super-centenarians" aged 110 and over had three specific genetic variants in common.
Perls cautioned that this is a very complex genetic puzzle and "we're quite a ways away, still, in understanding what pathways are governed by these genes."
The U.S. study found that about 85 percent of people 100 and older are women and 15 percent are men.
"Men tend to be more susceptible to mortality in age-related diseases," Perls said. "Once they get a disease they more readily die. Women, on the other hand, seem to be better able to handle these diseases, so they tend to have higher levels of disability than men, but they live longer than men."
While this study, begun in 1995, focused on Caucasians, the researchers said they plan to extend it to other groups, including Japan, which has large numbers of elderly.