Could it be that a few slices of bacon a day keep the doctor away? The world's oldest living person, Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, New York, recently said that she eats a serving of bacon every day.
Jones, who turned 116 on July 6 and was crowned the world's oldest living person by Guinness World Records that month, confessed her bacon habit in an interview published this week on the New York Post's site Page Six. So far, the Internet is having a field day with this information.
"If the world's oldest woman eats bacon every day, we can too — right?" tweeted People Magazine. "Lots of sleep as well as several slices of bacon, scrambled eggs and grits each morning is said to be her secret to longevity," Fox 5 Atlanta posted on Facebook. [Extending Life: 7 Ways to Live Past 100]
But before you go ordering that side of crispy processed meat product, you should know that bacon is not a fountain of youth, as the Internet might be suggesting. And Jones never said it was. Sure, she has a sign that says, "Bacon makes everything better" hanging in her kitchen, but in her interviews with both with Guinness World Records and Page Six, Jones credited her good sleeping habits, as well as her abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, for her continued good health.
The world's oldest living person is correct in thinking that her healthy habits have probably helped to keep her alive for over a century. However, it's likely that Jones mainly has her genetics to thank for her long life, said Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center and professor of medicine at Boston University.
"By no means should anyone, therefore, think that eating bacon is good for them because [Jones] eats bacon," Perls told Live Science. It may be that the Guinness World Record holder has been getting away with doing so only because she has "genes that make up for" her bacon habit, he added.
Since 1995, Perls and his colleagues have been studying why some people live longer than others. Their studies of centenarians and supercentenarians (people over the age of 110) are among the most comprehensive old-age studies in the world.
And Perls said there's just no scientific evidence that suggests people who eat bacon every day live longer. In fact, the research on red meat consumption and longevity suggests the truth is quite the opposite.
For example, a 28-year study of 120,000 people conducted by researchers at Harvard University found that eating one serving of unprocessed red meat (such as steak or pork chops) daily increased study participants' risk of dying during the study by 13 percent. Eating one serving daily of processed red meat (such as bacon) was associated with a 20 percent increased risk of dying during the study, the researchers found.
These findings are consistent with a 2010 meta-analysis by a separate group of researchers at Harvard, which found that people who eat processed red meats daily are at much higher risk of developing coronary heart disease and diabetes mellitus than those who do not eat these foods.
But Jones, and supercentenarians like her, are lucky, Perls said. There's an extremely strong genetic component to living this long, he told Live Science.
Living into what most people consider to be "old age" (around 85 to 90 years old) is mostly the reward for a healthy and disaster-free life, he said. People who have a good diet, exercise regularly, don't smoke or drink, and keep their stress levels low might be able to make it this long — a person's genes play a relatively small role in determining whether an individual lives to see his or her mid-80s or 90s.
But past that point, genes play a much bigger role, Perls said.
"It's around 70 percent genetic and 30 percent environment, in terms of what dictates a person's ability to live to ages like hers," he said.
And there is not just one "magic" gene that keeps a person chugging along into a second century on Earth. Rather, there are many genes that each play a small part in longevity, but as a group, can keep a person alive that long, said Perls, who noted that this may explain why you don't meet supercentenarians like Jones every day. Scoring her genetic makeup is as rare as winning the lottery (she's one in about 5 million).
And although it isn't yet clear exactly how "longevity" genes work, research suggests that these genes may be "protective," slowing down aging and decreasing a person's risk for age-related diseases, Perls said.
"And they help you in terms of things like eating a lot of bacon. So she's very lucky. She can eat all the bacon she wants and live to 116."
The oldest person to have ever lived was Jeanne Calment, of France, who lasted to the ripe old age of 122. Calment had an even worse vice than Jones' — she smoked a cigarette a day until she died, in 1997.
Who knows? Perls said — if not for the smoking, perhaps Calment would still be alive.