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Sanibel resident shares experience with aging research

By Staff | Jun 23, 2010

Nola Theiss, a Sanibel resident, just completed another leg of a aging research study in Maryland that she has been participating in for more than 20 years.

One Sanibel woman paid to go to to Baltimore, Md. in order to be poked, prodded and analyzed.

Though Nola Theiss’s idea of travel might sound a bit odd to some, her willingness to essentially donate herself to science may some day help people live healthier in their senior years.

Several weeks ago, Theiss spent 2 1/2 days undergoing a battery of physical and mental acuity tests for a study she has been participating.

Theiss, 62, is a volunteer subject for the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging being conducted. The National Institute on Aging (NIA)supports the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), America’s longest-running scientific study of human aging, begun in 1958, according to its website, http://www.nia.nih.gov/. BLSA scientists are learning what happens as people age and how to sift through changes due to aging from those due to disease or other causes. More than 1,400 men and women are study volunteers. They range in age from their 20s to their 90s.

Theiss said she wanted to get involved so she could help make a difference. She became part of the program in 1988 and has just completed her ninth session.

“People either love it or hate it,” Theiss said. “I find it fascinating.”

Theiss underwent 12 tests including having her heart monitored by wearing a holter monitor, blood tests, blood pressure, vision, glucose, tests of strength and mental cognition tests.

Theiss said she was particularly interested in learning about how well she stacked up to past years of testing since she suffered a minor stroke several months ago.

Apparently the only change Theiss experienced is losing some strength.

Theiss said her favorite test is one in which checks for changes in gait. For the test. Theiss was hooked up with tiny light bulbs along her joints. She then was asked to walk up and down a track.

But one test Theiss is not so crazy about is the cognitive portion. During the cognitive tests, memory, vocabulary and geometric tests are employed. Though the idea of challenging your mind to geometry, memory and vocabulary tests can be a fun challenge when you are young, the same tests can be unnerving as you age.

“When you’re getting older you think you’re losing your marbles,” Theiss said.

Despite any anxieties over the cognitive section of the testing, Theiss looks forward to the study because she learns a great deal about her own personal well-being as well as the knowledge that she is playing a role in helping scientists uncover ways to help people age better.

Aging is high on U.S. leaders minds and agenda since more people are living longer – often with chronic health issues creating a strain on finances and health care.

“Studying aging is the most important thing we do,” said Dr. Luigi Serrucci, a gerontologist and director of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) program. “The world that we know now will be completely different in 40 years.”

Serrucci cited issues such as a mobile society who for the most part no longer cares for aging parents leaving it to facilities and to the prevalence of chronic disease.

“We’re trying to understand the mechanisms of how we age,” Serrucci said.

Behavior and treatments will need to be addressed in order to help aging people live healthier, happier lives, he said.

Serrucci encourages the usual behavior for good health – not smoking and a good diet.

But aside from obesity and diseases from smoking, one element for unhealthy aging stands out to the aging researcher: belief that one falls apart during aging.

“The greatest concern is people use aging stereotypes,” Serrucci said. He said many people become sedentary as they age thinking that’s the way its supposed to be.

In order to keep up with the study, Serrucci said more volunteers are needed. in order to apply, potential participants must be healthy and be able to commit themselves to enter the study for life. Participants will have to be available for testing every two years in the Baltimore facility.

Participants must pay for travel to and from the study, however expenses during the study are paid for.

Theiss said residents on Sanibel would find the study interesting since many are very health conscious.

For more information about the aging study or volunteering for it, go to the website http://www.nia.nih.gov/.