The longest study on aging isn’t short on results

The longest study conducted on aging is 62 years old and still going strong – this bodes well for the future of Longevity.

The Longevity sector has really come to prominence over the past couple of decades, so it may surprise some people that its longest-running longitudinal study of aging was launched in 1958 – and it’s still going, enrolling participants aged 20 or older and monitoring them for life, with a goal of answering the question: “What is aging?”

Longevity.Technology: Examining the data from people who have already died can tell us about their health at point-of-death and how well they aged given a set of circumstances, but it’s far more valuable to have a bank of data based around the actual aging process. When does it start? Is decline uniform or varied? What factors have accelerated it, or slowed it down? What have the effects on our bodies been over time?

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) is a set of data that gets more detailed – and more valuable – with every passing year. 
Launched in 1958 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the BLSA was the idea of Nathan Shock, the then chief of the NIH’s Gerontology Branch, and William Peter, a retired Public Health Service officer and missionary doctor. Today there are over 1,300 participants, with ages ranging from their twenties to their hundreds. Every one to four years, the participants undergo a full evaluation of their health and cognitive functions in a process that takes almost three days.

As we have come to understand more about aging, what it is, what causes it and what its pathways are, so the study has become more refined. Originally looking at the physical and cognitive changes that are associated with normal disease-free aging, free of disease, as time passed the study began to encompass the interrelationship between disease and age-related changes.

The researchers understood that they needed to look at age and diseases’ combined effect on physical and cognitive functions, as well as investigating genetic, physical, behavioural and environmental factors that can have an effect on how and how fast these functions change. Currently, the study also examines exceptional aging, investigating the few individuals who travel through life with no health problems, living well into their eighties and beyond.

Endpoints for the study include life expectancy, healthy Longevity, cognition impairment, mobility limitation and frailty.

The study has results from over 3000 individuals and hundreds of scientific papers interpreting and drawing conclusions from those results, however for us, there are a few stand-out observations.

“Normal” aging is not synonymous with disease – but there is a relationship between them and aging cannot be understood with understanding its relationship to disease [1]. For example, when BLSA researchers investigated cardiovascular disease, they discovered that age-related changes in arteries bring an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

However, as is often the case with aging, there is a Catch-22; cardiovascular diseases actually speed up arterial aging [2]. The scientists realised that they couldn’t study how a normal heart ages without considering heart disease.

“… variability shows that the potential to age well is there for everyone. And a few people are showing us the way.”

There is no single, universal timeline of aging – we are all aging differently, and the older we get, the more variation there is. The rate of aging is affected by a wide range of factors including genetics, lifestyle and disease.

How an individual might age can be predicted – there are numerous biomarkers of aging and these change throughout an individual’s life. This variability means that changing aspects such as behaviour and lifestyle choices can directly affect aging. Aging is changeable.

For example, in blunt terms, the faster you walk in your forties, the longer you live [3]. Once you realise that, you can alter how you walk, if you wish – and there are lots of other changes, from diet, to sleep, to exercise, to lifestyle that you can take to affect your own aging pathway.

Dr Luigi Ferrucci, Scientific Director of the National Institute on Aging comments: “That’s a wonderful thing; it’s a window of opportunity. If everyone was on the same deterministic biological trajectory, there would be no hope that we could change it. But the incredible variability shows that the potential to age well is there for everyone. And a few people are showing us the way [4].”