July 1, 2015

Group Health and UW get $13 million to study aging and the brain

National Institute on Aging renews funding for long-running 'living laboratory'

SEATTLE— The National Institute on Aging recently awarded the Group Health–University of Washington (UW) Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study a grant of nearly $13 million to continue its work for the next five years through April 2020.

One of the longest-running studies of its kind, the ACT study has been thoroughly tracking what happens with a cohort of randomly selected Group Health patients older than 65 as they lead their lives. The study has become a “living laboratory” to understand the aging process—particularly in the brain—and to identify risk factors for conditions including dementia.

The study is led by Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, and Paul K. Crane, MD, MPH, as multi-principal investigators. Dr. Larson is vice president for research at Group Health, executive director of Group Health Research Institute (GHRI), and a clinical professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and of health services at the UW School of Public Health. He began the study as the Alzheimer’s Disease Patient Registry, a registry for Alzheimer’s disease, in 1986. Dr. Crane is a UW School of Medicine professor of medicine and adjunct professor of health services and a GHRI affiliate investigator.

For the next five years, the ACT study will focus on several areas, including these three:

  • Multiple illnesses
    Most older people have several chronic illnesses. How can having various conditions affect brain aging? These conditions include risk factors that can be modified for diseases of the heart and blood vessels.
  • Healthy aging
    Why are some ACT participants who have survived past age 85 still thinking and moving so well? "We've learned about what our research subjects value as they age,” Dr. Larson said. “We hope to help them find the best solutions to age well—promoting their independence and providing them with skills to cope with any problems that may happen."
  • Big data
    How can the ACT study continue to be a resource for a variety of collaborators worldwide who are interested in ACT’s rich sources of information from research and clinical visits, particularly for genetics and brain science? “Many scientific partners are intrigued by all we have to offer, including detailed information, precise diagnoses, and biostatistical and programming knowhow,” Dr. Crane said.

The participants’ completeness of follow-up is more than 97 percent, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and their families. Some have been with the ACT study since 1994, when the cohort formed. “We’re grateful for their efforts and the exquisite information about the history of their lives that contributes to all we’re learning about aging and the brain,” Dr. Larson said. “We couldn’t do any of this work without the dedication of our wonderful participants and staff.”

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