January 30, 2017

Luck and Genes

My mother’s friend Lixie died last month. Eight months ago, her husband (my father) died. And just about exactly a year ago, my mother’s friend Walter died.

The three of them were all in their 90’s: Lixie died 6 weeks after turning 92; my father also died 6 weeks after turning 92; Walter died 6 weeks before he would have been 92. My mother, who still lives independently though she is not as vigorous as she was a few years ago, reached age 91 in December.

They had something else in common: all three were born in Germany or Austria in the 1920s and left thanks to the efforts of a group of Belgian Jewish women who sought to rescue Jewish children from an uncertain fate. The group of 93 children stayed in Brussels until the Germans invaded Belgium. They then made their way to unoccupied France, where they found refuge until 1942, when France no longer provided a safe haven for them. My parents escaped individually to Switzerland and eventually, well after the end of the war, made their way to the US. Lixie remained in hiding in France until the end of the war. Walter was one of the few teenagers to manage to immigrate to the US during the war. The story of the “Children of La Hille” is told by Walter in a book published shortly before his death; I tell parts of the story in my memoir about my parents, Once They Had a Country

Of the 93 children in the original group that made their way to Brussels, 82 survived the war.  And of those 82, many are living into their nineties. In addition to the four I mentioned above—my mother and the three who died within the past year—I know of another three who are alive and over ninety. There may be more. Surely this is more than one would expect in a cohort of people born in Europe in the mid-1920s.

Curious, I looked at what is known about the longevity of Jews who survived the trauma of 1939-1945 in Europe. And what I found was very interesting indeed. An article called Against All Odds found that survivors of “genocidal trauma” during World War II were likely to live longer than a comparable group not exposed to the same trauma.

The study looked at Israelis born in Poland who were between 4 and 20 years of age in 1939. They compared those who came to Israel before 1939 with those who arrived between 1945 and 1950, defining as "Holocaust survivors" anyone who spent the war years in Europe, regardless of whether they were in a concentration camp, hiding in a convent, or on the run. The justification for this broad definition is that in all cases, their lives were in extreme jeopardy. 

The authors of the study examined at the experience of 41,454 Holocaust survivors and 13,766 controls. What they found was that Holocaust survivors were on average likely to live 6.5 months longer than those who were not in Europe during World War II. This despite ample prior evidence that Jews who spent some or all of the war years in Europe had a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in later life.

What does this mean? It’s not certain what it means, but one possibility is that whatever factors led this high risk group to survive under adversity also led them to survive into old age. And since there’s no reason to believe that just because you were lucky once, you’ll be lucky again, I suspect that a key factor is genes. Those Jewish children who managed to survive the war, including the Children of La Hille (who, because of the assistance they received, faced better odds than their counterparts who were not part of this group), were better equipped to endure. That capacity continued to help them for the remainder of their lives.

This explanation is, of course, entirely speculative. It’s conceivable that the longevity of the Children of La Hille is simply due to chance. But I am telling this story because it is a reminder that much of the experience of aging is shaped to a large extent by factors beyond our control—by luck and genes. 

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve our chances of survival by preventing whatever part of illness and disability is preventable. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can by exercising and eating a good diet, by avoiding drugs and alcohol, and by controlling conditions such as high blood pressure. But let’s have the humility to remember that we have only a modest ability to determine our fate. All those who, unlike the Children of La Hille, don't have good luck and good genes, should nonetheless have access to the medical care, housing, and social services that allow them to have as good a quality of life as possible, however many years they live.


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