The longest study on aging, sponsored by the National Institute on Health, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study, helps scientists piece together a more accurate perspective. Before the study, scientists compared surveyors in one age group to a contrasting set of individuals in another age group. Most of the differences between them are not attributed to age, but the result of life experiences, genetics or environmental factors.
What the Baltimore Longitudinal Study did instead was to compare two individuals, one who lived through two wars and the other who was raised in a peaceful and prosperous society. How each aged might be different, but the effect of age alone would be difficult to sort out. By looking at the same individuals over time, external influences are reduced. Longitudinal research allows scientists to gather thousands of case studies of human aging.
The researchers measured physical and cognitive changes in real time among a dedicated group of participants. They were tested at regular intervals over the course of their lives. The individuals 60 and under are assessed every 4 years. The older age brackets (60 to 79) tested every 2 years, and those over 80, annually.
The assessment included a complete health, cognitive and functional work-up. The study aimed to determine characterizing normal and exceptional aging, along with age-related health issues, such as frailty.
What researchers looked for:
—Types of aging changes over a span of decades.
—The behavioral, genetic, and environmental factors that affect changes.
—Predictors and risk factors for frailty, and other end-points like failure to adapt to aging.
—The potential components for interventions that may positively affect the aging process and prevent age-related diseases.
—The factors that predict healthy aging across the life span.
Several useful indicators were discovered, especially for individuals who want to know what changes to make in their current lifestyle to have a better aging process. The scientists are hopeful that the data will transform the way we conceptualize aging.
In a nutshell, they identified action steps people can take to maintain health and function as we get older. From improving our diet and levels of physical activity to getting health screenings and managing risk factors for disease, these actions may influence different areas of health.
More importantly, they hope to understand why some people are resistant to disease and functional decline and identify other challenges for the future.
Carol Marak is an aging advocate, syndicated columnist and editor at Seniorcare.com. She earned the Fundamentals of Gerontology Certificate from UC Davis, School of Gerontology.