Summerville resident Shirley Berardo has always considered herself remarkably healthy, one of those “good genes” people whose immune systems are robust. During childhood, she never missed school; when her sons came home with viruses, she didn’t get sick, and now, at 82, she is prescription-free and happily immersed in an active life.
When Berardo located her biological family, she mentioned never getting ill to her half-sister, who responded, “You have good genes. We all do; we never get sick.”
And then, Berardo’s certainty about her “good genes” shifted into an insatiable, contagious curiosity about why some people coast with good health and others experience just the opposite.
Like Berardo, several seniors consider themselves the lucky ones whose immune systems, good luck, good genes and good choices have shaped their lifetime of good health. They also enjoy a strong sense of community – a plus for longevity.
They gathered at Berardo’s home to share strategies they consider vital to their good health. The discussion was illuminating as each realized similarities and as Berardo peppered the conversation with current research and information her doctors have shared with her.
GOOD GENES AND HEARTY IMMUNE SYSTEMS
When Berardo was 62, she met with an internist to talk about her fascination with the possible correlation between good genes and good health.
“The doctor tested five chromosomes to see what the future may hold for me – what my propensity might be to have various illnesses associated with aging,” Berardo told the group.
The result revealed that four of the five chromosomes indicated she could be susceptible “to every neurological disease known to mankind – ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s – all of which have proteins that attach to nerve endings,” she added. “But the fifth chromosome was my powerhouse that could either negate neurological illnesses or ensure that symptoms were mild.”
Berardo’s efforts to connect with the internist or find paper work linked to that test have not been successful; however, it is likely that what she learned then mirrors more advanced research today.
“Today, thanks to the mapping of the human genome and subsequent efforts to make sense of the resulting blueprint of As and Ts, Gs and Cs, we are close to being able to predict your future health from your DNA,” writes Dr. Rahul S. Desikan in his 2019 Scientific American article titled “How Well Can a Genetic Test Predict Your Future Health?” Using advanced computer models, scientists are adding together the influence of the hundreds, even thousands, of DNA variants associated with a given disease into what is called a “polygenic score.”
“The hope is that your personalized polygenic score could help you prevent disease, live longer and plan for your future,” Dr. Desikan added.
Berardo and her guests’ good health could also linked to their distinct immune systems, according to a 2023 study con ducted by researchers at The National Institutes of Health.
“Researchers identified distinct features of the immune systems of extremely long-lived people,” according to findings published in NIH Research Matters. “One of those features was that their immune systems remained healthier for longer compared with other people.”
Over their lifetimes, “the centenarians developed fast, more effective immune responses to infections,” the NIH report continues.
“We haven’t reached 100 yet, but I’m sure our immune systems are different than other people’s,” Berardo said.
THE HAPPINESS FACTOR
Berardo’s guests were quick to note that, for them, happiness helps them live longer.
“I always try to find the good in everything and everyone, which makes me happy” said Gloria, 93. “I have no doubt that happiness – pushing away negative thoughts – keeps me alive. I’ve heard that smiling turns on healthy enzymes.”
“I make it a point to do things that make me happy and give me a sense of purpose,” said Cathy, 72. “I know these things – teaching before and now volunteering for Habitat for Humanity – help me live longer.”
Berardo shared an article that confirmed that happy people live longer. The article challenged policymakers to consider, among many things, ways to make people happy, which may involve more community engagements and more city beautification projects.
“Happiness linked to purpose – we have both; that is the key,” Berardo said.
MEET THE HEALTHY ONES
The women who gathered at Shirley Berardo’s home range from 70 to 93 years old. They are all mindful of what they eat, they exercise regularly, they are big water drinkers and they are involved in community programs that assist others.
Each attendee requested anonymity because of their shared belief that revealing who they are and where they live makes them prey to a growing number of scammers or others with intentions far worse.
“I grew up on a dairy farm in the Midwest. There was never a dull moment, and we were always doing some thing. My parents are 97, and Mom has always said, ‘Keep moving.’”
And Cathy does. A retired physical education teacher who played every sport when she was growing up, she still swims, walks, hikes and kayaks. She enjoys a glass of wine occasionally and takes vitamin D3, calcium, a multivitamin, zinc and omega 3.
“I love being with people, and I do all things in moderation. If I have a cheeseburger urge, I eat one, but, otherwise, I don’t eat much red meat. I don’t take anything unless I’m dying. At one point, I took 30 vitamins. But now I just take vitamin D.”
“I avoid sugar and caffeine, and I’m a pescatarian who enjoys an occasional bite of chicken. I have a franchise for health and nutrition supplements and take many. I also drink a lot of water – more than half my body weight in ounces. During my 4-mile walk, I drink 32 ounces and then drink another five to six 12 ounce glasses during the day.”
“I’m very healthy and I don’t hurt anywhere. I sleep well at night and I still drive. I’ve enjoyed Juice Plus+ for more than 45 years; it is something that makes me healthy for sure.”
Gloria also enjoys water aerobics four to five times a week and conversations during Ladies Lunch.
“I eat everything, and I eat slowly,” she said. “Usually everyone is waiting while I munch away.”
“I live in a world of positivity, and I always have an open mind. I constantly eat veggies, and I don’t eat red meat, with the exception of maybe a few hamburgers a year and an occasional piece of meatloaf.”
Ever the philanthropist, community volunteer, Shirley is championing the creation of a cultural arts center.
By Lisa Moody Breslin