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Age of Enlightenment

Two senior women holding hands and jumping into a swimming pool. They're excited and having fun.

What happens to us as we get older? In 1958, this deceptively simple question led Nathan Shock, then the head of gerontology at the National Institutes of Health, to create the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). His goal was to study the process of aging by tracking volunteers over time, measuring salient changes that occur throughout life to develop a scientific understanding of healthy aging.

The BLSA is a unique, purely observational study in which participants receive regular assessments of mental and physical fitness without any experimental intervention. Since its founding, the BLSA has collected data from thousands of people. There are currently more than 1,300 active participants, some of whom have been volunteering for more than 50 years. From the observations, numerous articles have been published, covering topics from nutrition and cardiovascular health to dementia and personality.

By collecting data from the same people over decades, the BLSA has produced an invaluable resource for scientists and nonscientists alike. In addition to providing a wide range of metrics and benchmarks for normal aging processes, data from the BLSA has highlighted the importance of many common sense strategies for maintaining a healthy, fulfilling life, such as eating well and exercising regularly.

An important insight from the BLSA is that psychology can have a significant impact on quality of life, regardless of genetic makeup. It is no surprise that our mental state can affect our general sense of well-being, but some studies have found correlations between attitude and molecular phenotypes. For example, a study from Becca Levy and colleagues found that a more rapid decline in hippocampal volume, and more severe Alzheimer’s disease-related pathology, was correlated with adults believing negative stereotypes about aging (e.g., older people are forgetful). Levy’s research has also highlighted a link between mindset and heart health, showing that people who had negative age stereotypes early in life were more likely to have cardiovascular events as they aged, such as congestive heart failure or stroke. In some cases, disposition can override predisposition — Levy’s work has also indicated that people carrying the Alzheimer’s risk factor APOE ε4 gene are less likely to develop dementia if they have positive attitudes about aging.

Though these studies are only correlative, openly embracing each new stage of life with enthusiasm and curiosity is a powerful skill that can have a measurable influence on a person’s subjective experience. Indeed, seeing aging as a privilege rather than a burden empowers us to make the most of life, enhancing the quality — and perhaps quantity — of our years.

For information about how to participate in the BLSA as a volunteer, visit the National Institute on Aging’s website.

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