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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Longevity: The Art of Aging. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired March 03, 2018 - 14:30   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: -- up next, "Vital Signs" with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

ROSEMARY SMITH: My name is Rosemary Smith, and my passion in life is driving fast, very fast.

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: At the age of 79, Rosemary Smith became the oldest person to drive a Formula One racing car. She is exceptional, but in recent years, she has part of this growing trend. We are talking about aging, and all of its mysteries. We know more than ever about how we age, but we don't still fully understand why we age or how, as life gets longer, to grow old well. As research continues, sometimes in unconventional ways, we are slowly starting to unlock its secrets.

This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

GUPTA: It's a new day here in the hills of central Sardinia, Italy. And here, it begins with the shot of caffeine. But this is no ordinary village.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was born in 1918 and I'll be 100 on 9th May this year. My uncle passed away at 113 years of age.

GUPTA: Tiana is one of a cluster of villages some two hours away from the capital Cagliari where the longevity of its residents has become a global phenomenon. Male residents here are 10 times more likely to reach the age of 100 than men in the rest of Italy.

DR. GIOVANNI PES, PHYSICIAN AND DEMOGRAPHER: We were surprised to observe a particular sex ratio. In most of the western countries the sex ratio of the age of 100 it is one to four in favor of women. In Sardinia the ratio is one to one, so we have the same proportion of men and women of advanced age.

GUPTA: Dr. Giovanni Pes coined the Blue Zone based on the blue marks he used on a map to identify villages with these extraordinary demographics. The terms now denotes a region in the world characterized by longevity, and there are four officially in Japan, Costa Rica, Greece, and Sardinia.

PES (through translator): Twenty years ago, almost everybody were convinced that the explanation was genetic. In fact that some information is well known for a gap in the genetic background from other European populations. This is because an isolated population. We have explored many candidate genes, but I was disappointed. I've learned to move to a broader approach to study longevity, adopting a multidisciplinary approach.

GUPTA: At the University Cagliari in the Sardinian capital, researchers are trying to understand the psychology.

MARIA CHIARA FASTAME, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CAGLIARI: What we found is that every people from the blue zone reported back better working memory than people recruited in northern Italy. Why? Because they were more involved in activities. They were less sedentary. They did more physical activities. And all these aspects altogether promote well-being physical and psychological.

PAUL HITCHCOTT, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CAGLIARI: The low levels of depression that we see are not due to them living some idyllic Shangri-La type life up in the mountains with lots of butterflies and birds singing. This is the sort of the idea about a rural existence. There is something about this population, their lifestyle which gives them a resistant to the normal knocks that older people have in later life.

Tiana was home to the first ever super centenarian. When Antonio Todde died in 2002, he was the oldest man in the world, having lived to the age of 112. His son Tonino is now 84.

TONINO TODDE, RESIDENT: Here's one of dad wearing the medal awarded to him after the Great War. He was born in 1880, lived through the 20th century into the 21st. His life spanned three centuries.

GUPTA: Tonino and his wife are preparing for Sunday mass. It is a weekly event which the community together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The origination that is in some way in charge to transmit the values, the local knowledge, the traditions of the village. So they are a resource for the community. They are considered very important. They are protected in some way. They are supported.

FASTAME: We can't be alone. Since we are born, we have social contacts. Since we are born, we are part of the system, and actively part of the system. And maintaining this status is from the memory, because if you are involved with many physical and cultural activities, it means that also your mind is more efficient. And this is maintained in the late lifespan. It is quite crucial.

TODDE: I still feel young. Even if I don't live to 113 years, I'll try and reach 100. I hope so.


GUPTA: When it comes to ages, we decided to visit three unique places, each asking a particular question. How much is aging have to do with the way that we live, or how much does aging have to do with the company we keep, and finally, how much does aging have to do with the way that we learn? It is that last one that University of Minnesota researchers focused in on when they came here to the Sister's School of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as

it is in heaven.

GUPTA: The school sisters are a teaching order of the sister of Catholic Church founded in the 19th century. Their work is primarily to pray, to learn, and to educate. Some 30 years ago 600 sister all over the age of 75 donated their brains to the study of Alzheimer's, a disease commonly associated with aging and is prevalent in those over the age of 65.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't know how the sisters were going to react to it, but when they heard of the explanation and how it would help people, help doctors be able to help other people, the sisters were all for it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And my spirit has are rejoiced in my savior.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I remember one sister saying, of course, I will do this. What good is it going to do me when my brain is six feet under?

GUPTA: Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, a progressive, neurodegenerative disease. It is believe close to 50 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with dementia, a figure which is expected to double in the next 20 years. Of the drug treatments currently in development, none offer a cure. But what also remains unclear is why we get it.

LAURA HEMMY, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHIATRY, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: The nurse center was really designed as an autopsy study to follow an age cohort of sisters, so a group of sisters who were all born around the same time. The goal of the study was to collect the brains and autopsy and to try to correlate day-to-day functioning during life with the type and level of burden of lesions on the brain after death.

MARGARET FLANAGAN, NEUROPATHOLOGIST: These are just two examples of cases from the nun study. One of them is a brain that has Alzheimer's disease which is this side of the tray. And then the normal aged brain, the one that is particularly affected and very important in the formation of memory is the hippocampus, and here you can see enlargement of the space around it as a result. In the healthy brain, there is no atrophy, the hippocampi are of normal size.

The weight here, you can see 840 grams for the Alzheimer's disease versus 1,050 grams.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We still don't understand the brain to the degree we probably need to in order to understand what do people get dementia. Why do some people get dementia and other people do not? Is it lifestyle? Is it something to do with our genetic makeup? There are still a lot of questions out there.

GUPTA: But one area of the study has proved revelatory, and the proves are in the writing.

HEMMY: When the sisters first decided they were going to participate in this study, they also donated a lot of historical records. They have all of these sisters write autobiographical essays when they were younger, when they first joined the order. And then they would have them revisit them throughout their life.

GUPTA: One sister wrote this --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was born on September 26th, 1909, the eldest of seven children, five girls and two boys.

GUPTA: Another wrote this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: God started my life off well by bestowing upon me a grace of inestimable value.

HEMMY: There was grammatical complexity and idea density. These are both units of measurement that talk about how much one can express in a certain amount of words. It did turn out that those sisters who had higher grammatical complexity and idea density when they were younger in their writings, they lived longer, and they had less incidents of clinical dementia and less buildup of the Alzheimer's related path lesions in the brain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So we joked here at the council swaying we better go read our autobiographies, because I might be headed for Alzheimer's depending on how I wrote it.

GUPTA: That sort of thing is really intriguing, because that was many years ago that you wrote this, in your 20s for example. The idea that something you write in your 20s could be predictive of the disease, in this case Alzheimer's, decades later is quite remarkable.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is. What I think is important as I work with some families is to encourage families to do reading to children to develop their vocabulary at a young age. It is -- I think that it can be something that can help for future if we really are serious about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think what we are really beginning to understand is that we have to take a life course approach to this. We have to start very, very young children understanding they may live very long lives and understanding that it is the life they lead from childhood, adolescent, into young adulthood that will dictate whether, a, they live a long lives, but more importantly whether they live health long lives.

GUPTA: Why nuns? Why are nuns unique with regard to this particular type of research?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So many things are in common, it rules a lot of the variabilities because we eat from the same kitchen, we all have pretty much the same background, pretty much the same kind of education. We had not been married, we had not smoked, we hadn't been drinking.

HEMMY: There is the desirability of limiting error from one perspective. The attribute that I think is probably the most important really is their dedication. The fact that they saw it as part of the religious mission and part of their community involvement together meant that they did not drop out.

GUPTA: Do you have any idea what percentage of the sisters did complete the entire study including the brain autopsy?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every one that was in it that signed up. Yes.

GUPTA: They all did this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They took the study very seriously. If they committed to it, they kept going.

HEMMY: This study has already been very influential, and that speaks to the dedication of the sisters. I want the data associated with the study to live on. So there is a huge collection associated with this study. There is still so much that can be done.


GUPTA: At the residential care home in South London, small moves are having an effect. Exercise sessions are a regular fixture for the residents, but this is something new. In September, 2017, a nursery school was established within the grounds of Nightingale's Hammerson.

It is one of the U.K.'s largest elderly care homes with over 200 permanent residents. The project is the first of its kind in the U.K.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pure joy. I don't know how the describe it, but they are lovely. Each week, you watch them gradually develop. It is amazing what you will see each time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 10 percent of the residents are over to the age of 100. In terms of the care that we provide, it is really complex care needs that will range from residential all the way to end of life care.

From the scientific perspective, we want to be able to measure and say this is evidence-based, because we have seen how it works and this can actually be replicated into a model of care.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It gives us strength. We can see these beautiful young little bodies, and you think, oh, wow, I can't do it quite as well, but we try. It gives us some encouragement.

GUPTA: Apples and Honey Nightingale was founded by Judith Ish- Horowicz who runs two other nursery schools in the city.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I built Nightingale House, and I asked them if I could open up a nursery here, because I have had a relationship with them for about 20 years already. And my nursery Apples and Honey in Wimbledon has been visiting about twice a year. I think that the people are becoming more and more aware of the aging process as live in a fractured society that we have where people actually don't mix, where you often don't have extended family where the family is living close to you. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My family is back home where I come, and so I know

that she is getting something that she is not able to get at home.

GUPTA: While the program is open to children of all backgrounds, Nightingale's is in fact a Jewish home. Every Monday a small group of children and residents meet to celebrate Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week.

ALI SOMERS, NIGHTINGALE HAMMERSON: There is a saying in Hebrew which means from generation to generation. The sense of not just an obligation, but rather that our history lives through the generations. And so to know where we are going, we need to know where we have been, and we can only do that if we not just respect those who came before, the elderly, but actually see them as a resource. And I think that for me, that is the most Jewish dimension of what we do.

These children, because of their stories, because of their experiences and their memories of meeting and playing and talking and sharing with the residents here, they are going to keep the memories of those residents, many of whom have not got other children to keep their memories alive, they are going to keep those memories alive, and that will enrich all of our lives. We will hear those story, and they will be remembered.

GUPTA: The stories are sometimes hard to believe. Ben is 107. He has lived through two world wars. Three of the residents are survivors of the holocaust.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For most of the survivors during that period of time, they were very young people. And so, being able to the actually see a different experience of childhood in a positive manner can actually help them to actually just deal with many of the ill feelings or bad feelings or the bad memories that they may have had as a child.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The residents, many of them have not had children. They come from a generation where many of them would have been meeting their life partner during the war. And there were so many who actually never had that opportunity. And they are getting the opportunity to live the experiences that they may not have had.

GUPTA: Fay turned 90 this year. Her career took her to New York where she worked with the United Nations. She never had children of her own.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Getting to the know each other, and I noticed that when they come into the room, there is recognition, which is wonderful I think.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Children are very nonjudgmental, they're very accepting, and they're also very interested and very creative. They see things often from quirky directions. And this actually I think stimulates the residents. It helps them to go out of that rather fixed identity of being somebody who has got no purpose in life anymore or maybe who is too old, because they are for the children fascinating. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that there is a real need for us to

rethink about what experience of real old age is like, and how we as a society can respond to that. We have been so obsessed, and I think that it is right with healthy, active aging, but I think there is an argument that in this last few months, possibly years, but a short time for many people, actually, when we do come to the end of our lives and face death that we need to reclaim that experience as a sort of mainstream part of being human.

GUPTA: Ageing is no simple game, but if there is one thing that we have are learned, it's that a single human interaction can go a long, long way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you do? How do you do?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they gave me a new life quite honestly, and it is something that I certainly didn't expect.