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Scientists Seek Long-lived Families

The Topeka Capital-Journal


By Gary Rotstein


Katherine Baron, 93, still can work at her garden. The rake that she is holding is more than 100 years old. Baron lives with her daughter, Bernadette, who is 66.

Baron and sisters 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, Pa., 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 is talking. Or maybe it is all just luck.

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

Researchers believe healthy, long living is more than mere chance, however. They are 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 also will 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 Pittsburgh coverage area alone, which includes 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 only in those who live a long time, but also 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.

If it is 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," 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."

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