New study will examine why people live exceptionally long lives

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will head an ambitious study of people who live exceptionally long and healthy lives to identify the factors that account for their longevity.

A team led by Michael Province, Ph.D., professor of biostatistics and genetics, received a five-year, $4 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) to establish a Data Management and Coordinating Center (DMCC) for the Exceptional Longevity Family Study.

“The trick is not just to live long, but to live disease free. We want to find out how people do it,” says Province. “There is preliminary evidence from many sources that genes play a significant role, especially for the oldest of the old, those who live past 100.”

The DMCC will be the cornerstone of the multicenter longevity project, linking together four study centers (three in the United States and one in Europe) funded by NIA. The study centers will gather genetic and health information from over 3,000 long-lived volunteers and their descendants, and the DMCC will provide a central facility to tabulate and analyze the data gathered.

“There will be a great deal of data,” Province indicates. “We will be looking for genetic risks for cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes—all the major risks—as well as asking about personal habits, looking at medical histories, and doing clinical tests.”

The DMCC will also advise the study centers on detailed experimental design and ensure stringent quality control of the data for the duration of the study. “We hope to develop this study into a flagship resource for human longevity research for well beyond its initial five years of funding,” says Province.

Province and other members participating in the project have had extensive experience with multicenter health studies and have developed innovative statistical tools that can now be applied to identify both the genetic and the non-genetic causes of extreme longevity. “There are a whole slew of things that we have been playing with and testing to see how well they work on very complex data,” Province states. “And they can be very powerful, especially for the analysis of clusters of interacting causes and complex pathways.” In addition, with recent developments in computer technology, the DMCC will be able to perform statistical analyses that previously would not have been possible.

Ingrid Borecki, Ph.D., associate professor of biostatistics at Washington University School of Medicine, will co-direct the DMCC project, assisted by J. Philip Miller and a team from the Division of Biostatistics. The study center leaders will be Richard Mayeux, M.D. (Columbia University), Anne Newman, M.D. (University of Pittsburgh), Thomas Perls, M.D. (Boston University), and James Vaupel, Ph.D. (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Germany).

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