‘Super Senior’ study looks for cancer-causing overrides

The Canadian Cancer Society has raised over $200,000 in order to assess the genes of some of the healthiest Canadian seniors.

The study is examining 500 ‘super seniors’ who are 85 years and older and have never developed:

  • cancer
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • dementia
  • lung disease
  • diabetes

The super senior project’s lead researcher Dr. Angela Brooks-Wilson says the study aims to determine whether or not the super senior participants have any genetic characteristics that could override their risks of cancer and other diseases.

View media release 

In a media release from the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr. Brooks-Wilson said the research project has been collecting data on the 500 super seniors for approximately 17 years.

“It appears that some of these amazingly healthy super seniors, who are still active and busy at an advanced age, could be genetically protected from cancer-causing mutations,” said Dr. Brooks-Wilson in the release.

“There is also lots of evidence from other studies that lifestyle behaviours, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet, cutting down on alcohol and getting regular exercise, play a huge role in not getting cancer.”

Previous research suggests that some of the super seniors could be carrying gene sequences that lead to cancer, yet the genes have not been activated.

The research project aims to identify the possible genetic factors that work to override disease and keep the super seniors healthy.

Problems with a single study group

Lia Tsotsos, Principal Researcher at the Centre for Elder Research at Sheridan College in Oakville, praises the Canadian Cancer Society for researching possible overrides for cancer-causing genes, but worries about the generalizability of the results.

“The super seniors project is a commendable step forward in research surrounding cancer causing genes,” said Tsotsos. “However, there are so many factors that contribute to the health of seniors over the 85 plus years of their lives.”

“Everyone’s biology is different, and therefore more studies outside of this specific group will need to be done in the future.”

Tsotsos explained that the Centre for Elder Research promotes the healthy living and healthy practices of seniors. Not smoking, exercising regularly and eating balanced meals are some of the many proven methods they recommend to assist with overall positive health.

But Tsotsos explained that cancer is a vast and complicated disease with various causes, which can be purely individual.

“The genetic complexity of cancer is huge, and therefore we need to be very careful when researching preventative measures,” Tsotos said. “There is a difference between looking at purposeful experiments to evaluate what activities actually activate or override genes, versus looking at a study group of healthy seniors and drawing inferring causality.”

“Those are two very different kinds of approaches to research. Looking at this specific group of super seniors is just one part of a very big picture.”

About the super seniors project 

The Canadian Cancer Society is funding the super seniors project through a $200,000 grant raised solely by the donations of Canadians. Donations were raised in the period of one week between Nov. 25 and Dec. 2, 2014.

The study is expected to take approximately two years to complete.

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