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15992Czech / Slovaks live long and are now part of a study...

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  • Claudia Medvik
    May 7, 2006
      This was carried in our local paper in Michigan but I tracked it down to the Pittsburgh paper with full info on how to join this study!

      Scientists seek long-lived families to find how they stay healthy
      Sunday, April 30, 2006

      By Gary Rotstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

      Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
      Katherine Baron, 93, of Greenfield, still can work at her garden. The rake that she is holding is more than 100 years old. Ms. Baron lives with her daughter, Bernadette, who is 66.

      Sisters Katherine Baron, Helen Molchan, Elizabeth Meloy and Margaret DeMine lack a consensus on how they have made it through nine decades of healthy living.

      In separate interviews, the four oldest among nine living siblings, who grew up on a farm in Derry, Westmoreland County, allude to the benefits of staying active, declining to smoke, avoiding alcohol, even tooth-brushing religiously.

      They also say credit might be owed to their forebears in the former Czechoslovakia, since one or both of their grandfathers there made it into their 90s, depending on who's talking. Or maybe it's all just luck.

      "I don't think we have anything in common, and I'm a twin," said Ms. DeMine, of Latrobe, who turns 90 in November along with Ms. Meloy, making them younger sisters of Ms. Baron, 93, and Ms. Molchan, 92.

      Researchers believe healthy, long living is more than mere chance, however. They're seeking families like the Sedlaks (the sisters' maiden name) to provide some answers.

      An $18 million National Institute on Aging study examining families with longevity patterns gets under way in the next few weeks at the University of Pittsburgh and three other sites. Over the next several years, hundreds of families from Pittsburgh, Boston, New York and Denmark with multiple members alive and functioning in their 80s, 90s or beyond will be interviewed, and have blood samples drawn.

      Researchers say it may be the most extensive aging study yet, with hopes of uncovering not a fountain of youth, but a sea of information on what contributes to healthy aging.

      "Given that these individuals pan out to be models of successful aging and have abilities to escape or delay age-related disease, or escape or delay disabilities, we want to find out how they do that ... and we don't believe it's because of any one single factor," said Dr. Thomas Perls, a Boston University professor who is director of the New England Centenarian Study.

      He is collaborating on the new Long Life Family Study with Dr. Anne B. Newman, a Pitt geriatrician and professor of epidemiology, and researchers from Columbia University and the University of Southern Denmark. The study is expected to take at least four years of surveying and analysis before revealing some answers.

      The researchers are most interested in families with members 90 and older, although those in their 80s will also be interviewed. Mailings will go out this month to a random sample of individuals on the government's Medicare list who are in the right geographic areas and of the right age. For the Pitt coverage area of Western Pennsylvania and nearby parts of Ohio and West Virginia, there are an estimated 40,000 people 90 or older, three-fourths of them women.

      Winifred Rossi, the NIA deputy director of geriatrics and clinical gerontology, said the interest is not just in those who live a long time, but in those who do so with vigor. Often that goes hand in hand, she notes, since disease weeds out many weaker people in their 70s or 80s, just as prior obstacles such as childhood illness, the Depression and wars did to peers at younger ages.

      If it's true that only the strongest survive, and if more than one of them can do it in a family, the researchers figure interviewing and physically testing such people can help determine the lifestyle, environmental and genetic issues involved. Various studies have focused on one aspect or another.

      Some data identified possible common traits among the long-lived, such as ability to manage stress well, or that first-born children have a greater chance of such success than siblings that follow. But no one has yet summed it up as well as the Long Life Family Study might, using 1,000 families as participants.

      "Every person has their own story, but we're also trying to find things in common," Ms. Rossi said. "Some investigators who have done this on a smaller scale will tell you that when they asked centenarians their secrets, not once did they get the same answer twice."

      Dr. Perls and collaborators in a prior study did find some helpful family links, however. Brothers of people who made it to age 100 were 17 times more likely than the general population to become centenarians themselves, and their sisters were eight times more likely. That could be from sharing good genes, or it could be habits passed on from parents relating to physical activity, diet and other habits.

      The sons and daughters of people who make it to age 100 have also tended to be healthier than other people their age, with better blood pressure, cholesterol readings and disease avoidance. Researchers hope if they identify family genes helpful to good health, the information could lead to drugs benefiting those who aren't naturally blessed.

      Dr. Perls compares anyone reaching an extraordinary age to a big lottery-jackpot winner. Most people don't get there, just like most won't win the Powerball.

      "It probably takes the right combination of factors," he said. "Getting two numbers right in the lottery isn't all that unlikely, but getting six is."

      For people born in 1910, 1.5 percent of men and 3.3 percent of women made it to 90, according to government statistics. Only three of every 10,000 men and seven of every 10,000 women born that year are projected to become centenarians.

      "The more extreme you go beyond age 90, the mortality rate increases so rapidly," Dr. Newman said. "Even though we have people turning 100 every day in the United States, it's still quite an accomplishment."

      For purposes of the study, she said the families initially sought will be those with at least two elderly siblings, including one 90 or older, plus at least one offspring of those who is able to take part.

      Studying two different generations will help determine the importance of genetics. Participants, who should be free of serious physical or mental ailments, will answer questions about their health and lifestyle. They will be tested on both mental and physical functioning, plus give blood samples. The work can take place either in their homes or at Pitt.

      While response to mailings will dictate the initial survey participants, families who fit the criteria may also phone the recruitment office at Pitt at 800-872-3653 to volunteer.

      The Sedlak sisters haven't discussed whether they'll be involved, but they fit the mold.

      "I'm still going pretty good, but I get tired quick," said the widowed Ms. Baron, who lives in Greenfield with her daughter and is determined once more this summer to grow perfect red tomatoes to pass around to neighbors.

      Even if researchers might have trouble confirming her notion that early devotion to tooth-brushing was a big factor in her longevity, they'd almost certainly be happy to make use of her and her sisters, as just one remarkably long-lived family.

      "It's a unique pleasure to have a study that asks people, 'Why do you age so well, and can you tell us your secrets?' when we spend so much other time focusing on disease," the national institute's Ms. Rossi said.

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