María Branyas, 113 years old and believed to be the oldest woman in Spain, had only mild symptoms of Covid-19. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy praised Sylvia Goldsholl for beating the novel coronavirus at the age of 108. Connie Titchen, 106, received a round of applause from doctors and nurses as she was wheeled out of Birmingham’s City Hospital. She said she felt very lucky to have fought off the virus.
One of the established facts about Covid-19 is that it hits older people hardest — which is why stories of centenarians beating Covid-19 piqued the curiosity of geneticist Mayana Zatz. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of dying due to Covid-19 is 630 times higher in people over the age of 85 as compared to young adults ages 18 to 29. So how come some of the oldest of the old are surviving Covid-19 unharmed?
Zatz, who directs the Human Genome and Stem-Cell Research Center at the University of São Paulo, in Brazil, has a hunch that sheer luck is not enough to explain it. She has always been intrigued by how certain seniors seem to effortlessly overcome all kinds of health issues. In the past few years, her team sequenced the whole genome of 1,170 people over 60. One goal of the project, which is the largest genome study of older adults in Latin America, was to identify genetic traits that may contribute to healthy aging. Zatz was in the process of writing the results when the pandemic hit.
“When people ask me why these people are surviving, I usually answer that it’s probably precisely because they are centenarians.”
Now focused on those older than 95 who defeated Covid-19, Zatz is already recruiting and collecting blood samples from people in that age group who were either diagnosed with Covid-19 or were in very close contact with symptomatic Covid-19 patients. “When people ask me why these people are surviving, I usually answer that it’s probably precisely because they are centenarians,” Zatz says. “Apparently, these people have a huge resistance to any challenge…