Volunteers in a 50-year-long study provide invaluable data on the aging process

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Every year hundreds of people travel to Baltimore for an unusual purpose. They are not here to tour the city's aquarium or sample its fabled blue crabs. They are not in search of fame or money. Other than free lodging, they receive nothing in exchange for their visit, which entails a certain amount of discomfort.

No, these folks, some of whom have made this journey for decades, believe the trip is worth their time and expense because how they live -- calculated according to everything from the strength of their grip to how many apples they consume in a month -- may offer clues to how the rest of us might live better, longer, healthier lives.

These individuals -- homemakers, retirees, doctors and myriad others -- are participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), the country's longest-running study of aging.

Since 1958, a total of more than 1,400 volunteers have agreed to regularly undergo in-depth physicals and memory and other screenings conducted by the study's physicians. The resulting data span more than half a century and are a gold mine for researchers interested in the aging process.

Because of the BLSA, scientists know that signs indicating that a person could be at risk for dementia and other cognitive diseases may appear 20 years before symptoms emerge. Findings that today are common knowledge (that exercise can help reduce high blood pressure, for one) can be traced back to BLSA's annual physicals and the data analysis done by the study's scientists.

Think of it as a vast historical record.

The BLSA is one of many projects being done by the National Institute on Aging, but the study itself is a rarity. Few institutions will undertake such an extensive venture, largely because the commitment required from individuals is enormous, said the study's director, Luigi Ferrucci.

It's not just researchers who toil for years sifting through mountains of data. BLSA participants also are devoted to helping researchers fulfill the study's goals: One person has been enrolled for 47 years. The oldest participant is 102 and has made the required pilgrimage to Baltimore regularly for 38 years.

"Participants really, really love the study," said Ferrucci, a genial, gray-haired physician who first learned about the BLSA as a student in his native Italy. "They feel they are making a contribution to science, and they feel like aging is such an important and under-studied issue, anything they can do to help, they want to do.'' Participants come from as far as Norway. Some even donate their bodies to the BLSA autopsy study.

"It's a chance to make a unique contribution to research on aging,'' said Richard Sprott of Potomac, one of the participants, "since this is the only research project of its kind in the world."

As understanding of aging has changed, so have elements of the study. Researchers recently incorporated a new component into their research, Insights Into the Determinants of Exceptional Aging and Longevity study (IDEAL), an effort to uncover the secrets of those who age exceptionally well: Think 80-year-olds who ski and jog or 90-year-olds whose hearing and memory put a 30-year-old to shame. Ferrucci estimates only about 0.5 percent of the population has such abilities.

A Rigorous Three Days

The elevator doors slide open to reveal a tastefully decorated lobby. Soft music plays in the background. A huge bank of windows offers a soothing view of the Patapsco River. A smiling receptionist greets visitors warmly. For three days, the fifth floor of Harbor Hospital in Baltimore will serve as home base for the many participants who come for their physicals. Most will stay here at the hospital in comfortable but not particularly plush rooms. Proximity is important because researchers want them to be available for the battery of tests they'll undergo over the next 48 to 72 hours.

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