Photo courtesy Scripps Translational Science Institute

Initial findings from an eight-year study of the genome sequences of healthy elderly people has found a link between cognitive health and protection from chronic diseases.

The study of so-called “Wellderly” individuals by researchers at the Scripps Translational Science Institute was reported Thursday in the online edition of the scientific journal Cell.

“The Wellderly, as we’ve defined, are exceptional individuals who live into their ninth decade and beyond without developing a significant chronic medical condition,” said STSI Director Eric Topol. “Our findings indicate that protection from cognitive decline is associated, not necessarily cause and effect, with healthspan.”

The study of 1,400 individuals found that long-term cognitive health is associated with protection from such chronic diseases as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, which account for 90 percent of all deaths in the United States and more than 75 percent of health care costs.

STSI is a National Institutes of Health-sponsored site led by Scripps Health in collaboration with The Scripps Research Institute.

“This study is exciting because it is the first large one using genetic sequencing to focus on health,” said Stanford University Department of Genetics Chairman Michael Snyder, who was not involved with the research. “Most of the world’s scientists are studying disease, but what we really want to understand is what keeps us healthy. That is what the Wellderly Study is all about.”

John Rawlings, 90, of San Diego is one of the study’s participants. The Indiana native and World War II veteran started playing softball in his 70s and was inducted into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame in 2009. He also is an avid reader.

“When I turned 90, they said, ‘Let’s have a big party,’” Rawlings said. “I told them, ‘You’d better wait until I turn 100.’”

The Wellderly group had a significantly lower genetic risk for Alzheimer’s and coronary artery disease, researchers found.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.