An Amish buggy.
An Amish buggy. Public Domain

Almost every single Amish person living in the United States today is descended from one of 200 or so 18th- and 19th-century German-Swiss immigrants. Genetic variation is minimal, which is thought to contribute to unusually high rates of dwarfism and developmental delays, as well as mysterious disorders seldom seen outside of the group. But different Amish communities have different genetic fingerprints. In one county in Ohio, for instance, the Amish make up about 10 percent of the population, but around half of its special needs cases. In Berne, Indiana, a new study has revealed the presence of a unique and very specific genetic mutation in its tiny Old Order Amish community. Those with this gene variant live more than 10 percent longer than those without it, with an average lifespan of 85, rather than 71, years.

The mutation occurs on a gene called SERPINE1, and seems to offer a bumper crop of health benefits—less risk of diabetes, lower fasting insulin levels, and very low levels of PAI-1, or plasminogen activator inhibitor. This protein impacts how cells age and deteriorate, and has been associated with telomeres, or the caps at the ends of chromosomes that are considered biological markers of aging. Those with the SERPINE1 mutation have caps that are 10 percent longer than those of people without it. “The findings astonished us because of the consistency of the anti-aging benefits across multiple body systems,” Douglas Vaughan, the lead author of the paper, which appeared in Science Advances, said in a statement. “That played out in them having a longer lifespan. Not only do they live longer, they live healthier. It’s a desirable form of longevity. It’s their ‘health span.’” But there are drawbacks. While the gene may confer longer average life, people with two copies of it—one from each parent—could be susceptible to a rare genetic bleeding disorder. This form of hemophilia is what originally drew Vaughan’s attention to the community—and what encouraged its members to participate in the study.

Vaughan and his team at Northwestern University are attempting to recreate the effects of the mutation with a new experimental “longevity” drug. In earlier trials, mice were found to live four times as long when given the drug. In Japan the drug has already finished its phase I human trials, and in the United States, pending the FDA’s approval, it’ll be tested on people with type 2 diabetes and obesity, to gauge its effect on insulin sensitivity. Time will tell if this is a possible path to the fountain of youth.