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Baltimore-Area Research on Aging Improves Health of People 50+

AARP lends a hand by recruiting participants

medical research

Jared Soares

UMBC researcher Kate de Medeiros, left, interviews Shirley Griffin, 78, at her Crownsville home. Griffin is a participant in a study of women over 65 who have not had children.

On the Baltimore campus of Johns Hopkins Hospital, doctors unearthed a new clue to diagnose and treat Alzheimer's disease long before the onset of symptoms.

In another Baltimore laboratory, researchers at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) discovered that aging does not inevitably lead to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension or dementia.

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Not far away, other researchers developed the "Mini Mental State Examination," which provides a quick, noninvasive assessment of age-related cognitive impairment.

Because of research conducted in the Baltimore area, older adults worldwide now take medicine and follow diet and exercise recommendations that were not available to earlier generations.

A vital element of the research network is a ready supply of study participants, and AARP Maryland has a key role in recruiting some of the volunteers.

With more than 800,000 members statewide, "we can get the word out pretty good," said Rawle Andrews Jr., AARP regional vice president.

Shirley Griffin, 78, of Crownsville, shares her life stories with researchers at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) who are studying the lives of women without children.

The retired Baltimore teacher, world traveler and author said many people believe parenthood is the only way to feel fulfilled. "I feel you can fulfill yourself in other ways," she said.

Principal researcher Kate de Medeiros said the study was prompted by the growing number of childless older women. A goal of the study is to help service organizations and policymakers rethink assumptions about family structure in older age.

This year, the Baltimore region received about $35 million from the NIA for studies. Among them are a Johns Hopkins study to identify barriers to kidney transplants for older adults and ways to overcome those obstacles, and a UMBC study on ways to achieve greater independence for residents of assisted living facilities.

"People who are in the aging field will very consistently cite Baltimore — because of the National Institute on Aging, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland — as a major hub for aging research in the world," said Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer's Treatment Center.

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At the center of the hub is the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, America's longest-running biomedical, social and behavioral study of human aging.

Based at the NIA Clinical Unit at Harbor Hospital, it was launched in 1958 to distinguish changes resulting from natural aging from those attributed to disease or other causes. A few of its findings:

  • Older people can cope better with stress than young adults.
  • When older men and younger men consume equal amounts of alcohol, the reaction times and thinking processes are dulled more in the older men.
  • Short-term visual memory declines over time, but vocabulary increases until people are in their 80s and then declines only slightly.
  • Personality has a greater effect on happiness than physical health. Social, generous and goal-oriented older adults are happier.

Many of these studies produced what is now considered common-sense advice about healthy eating and exercise. They have debunked assumptions that older people cannot improve their health or retain their independence.

Lyketsos said he expects Baltimore will continue as a leader in this field of research, but more studies are needed.

"I see patients and families every day who say, 'What can I do?' and most of the time I don't have evidence-based research to say, 'You should do this' or 'You should do that.' It's still more an art than a science," he said.

Recruiting announcements for Baltimore-area research are posted on the AARP Maryland website. Go online to join the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging or call 410-350-3941.

Effie Dawson is a writer living in Arnold, Md.

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