SFU researchers zero in on what makes some people healthier than the rest of us

February 01, 2024
Photo by Gabin Vallet on Unsplash

It’s not quite the fountain of youth, but researchers from Simon Fraser University and BC Cancer have pinpointed the specific physiological traits that can help people live longer, healthier lives.

According to a study published in the journal GeroScience, the very healthiest of older adults in Canada  fell within a “sweet spot”, or optimal value, for more than 100 different physiological traits, compared to less healthy people of the same age.

Researchers say understanding these sweet spots – what affects them and how to maintain them through lifestyle and medical intervention – has the potential to prolong people’s lifespans. 

“This work allowed us to identify unrecognized features of healthy aging,” says co-lead author of the paper Angela Brooks-Wilson, Simon Fraser University’s Dean of Science and Distinguished Scientist with the BC Cancer Research Institute. “In healthier groups, measures important for health tend to be closer to optimal values. This provides a way to identify traits that were not previously understood to be important for health, by looking to see if the measures for a trait are closer together in the healthy group." 

The team, led by Lloyd Elliott, assistant professor in SFU’s department of Statistics and Actuarial Sciences, and Brooks-Wilson examined data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) to assess the well-being of 30,000 Canadians between the ages of 45 and 85 years by evaluating several health indicators, including physical and cognitive functioning.

The researchers analyzed over 300 traits – including hematology, blood chemistry, electrocardiogram (ECG) scans, body-mass index (BMI), hip and waist circumferences, bone mineral density, vital signs, and inflammatory markers – and found 142 traits where better health correlated with having a measure closer to a so-called “sweet spot”. 

The difference was most significant in blood chemistry, specifically for hemoglobin A1c levels, and was also substantial for many body composition measurements such as BMI, hip circumference, body weight, and the amount of lean and fat tissues.

PhD student Olga Vishnyakova, the lead data analyst, noted that “The results highlight the importance of interpreting health data with homeostasis in mind”. Homeostasis is a set of mechanisms that living organisms use to maintain physiological consistency by regulating their internal environment; it causes quantities such as glucose level, body temperature and blood pressure to be maintained close to optimal values. Aging is a major factor in the disruption of homeostatic regulation, which can lead to compromised function, disease and mortality risk.

A next step of the research is to examine what health behaviours may correlate with having values close to sweet spots. Until then, general health advice such as not smoking, drinking little or no alcohol, and exercising regularly is good advice for healthy aging. 

This research was made possible using the Baseline Comprehensive Dataset version 6.0 data collected by the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (https://www.clsa-elcv.ca/).