Glenn's tests are but a drop in the bucket Un-astronauts: Hundreds of volunteers are part of a study of the process of aging going on right here on Earth. In Baltimore, in fact. It has been going on for 40 years.

October 29, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

John Glenn, a 77-year-old astronaut, blasts off into space today for the second time in his life. His volunteer mission: to do his part for his generation.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jim Beattie, a 77-year-old retired college dean, began a volunteer mission of his own: to be a guinea pig in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.

During and after his flight, Glenn will be pricked and prodded, drained of his body fluids; his skeleton will be scanned, his fat and muscle ratio recorded. NASA scientists will analyze his equilibrium to judge how well his body adjusted to the sudden transfer from gravity to the absence of gravity, then abruptly back again. The data, at some point, might help scientists understand more about how human beings age and, in turn, how to ameliorate that process, extend it.

It will be information got at a high price. For a man Glenn's age, the nine days in space -- especially the G-pressure of liftoff -- will be no picnic. And it will cost millions.

For the Beattie mission, the bill to the taxpayers will be small: two days room and board at the BLSA facility on Eastern Avenue, the cost of a few physical and cognitive tests, virtually no physical strain. The mission itself? Beattie and his wife, Helen, will go home and record every meal they eat for one week.

The payoff? Once the information is analyzed, it may help improve the diet recommended to older Americans.

It's only a small part of this large study without foreseeable end conducted by the National Institute of Aging, the aim of which is to describe aging in all its aspects -- psychologically, physically, socially -- and, in the process, learn many unexpected things, such as:

Contrary to popular belief seniors are not crankier than young people; if you're a pain in the neck at 30, you'll be a pain in the neck at 60.

There is only one John Glenn. There are many Jim Beatties: 1,170 to be precise.

A 40-year effort

The NIA's federally financed longitudinal study has been going on since 1958. Described as one of the world's great medical investigations, it includes 584 men and 586 women, all lifetime volunteers. The youngest are 21 (two of them); the senior, 98.

Some 2,400 people have served in the BLSA corps of volunteers over the years; few have dropped out. It has also become something of a family thing. Children, as they age, often volunteer, after a parent has died or even before. Helen Beattie's father was one of the original volunteers.

"Some have participated even longer by signing up for the autopsy program," said NIA spokeswoman Suzanne Lewis, with grim earnestness.

The great majority of volunteers come from Maryland, if only because they are closer to the NIA. "They are interested in health," says Lewis. For that reason, perhaps, "the men in the study also tend to live about eight years longer than men in the general population."

About 20 to 25 of the volunteers show up at the Eastern Avenue labs each week. But most are asked to appear once every two years, those over 80 once a year. If anything is found wrong with them it is not treated there.

"This is not an interventionist study," explains Barbara S. Hiscock, one of the analysts.

Still, warnings are important. Jim Beattie, who has been in the program since 1990 when he retired as dean of Penn State's College of Agriculture, was advised early in his participation that had a fistula (like an abcess) in his leg. He had it fixed. About two years ago, an abdominal aneurysm was found. He had it fixed.

"I'll stay with the program as long as I can drive a car," he said.

The BLSA will even send drivers out for those volunteers unable to drive, if they live within three hours of Baltimore.

The BLSA has no time limit, no end contemplated. "We're trying to separate the natural process of aging from disease," said Reubin Andres, an NIA expert on obesity, diabetes and metabolism.

All people, as they age, lose lung capacity, muscle. Their hearing falls off, their vision. But the illnesses they frequently fall prey to -- the cancers, coronary disease, stroke, diabetes -- are not always directly associated with the natural process of aging, and more and more remedies and strategies of life are being found to avoid these illnesses.

The BLSA is growing into its own maturity at a time when the older population is expanding and new assessments are emerging, both optimistic and pessimistic, about how life will be lived in the later years. One recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says suicide rates among the elderly have climbed by about 9 percent in the past 18 years, which hints at some disenchantment within the senior community.

Another report celebrates the appearance of a "third age" of life, the extension of active middle age into what used to be called the final years, all thanks to healthier diets, higher incomes and medical advances. There are predictions that, before long, many more people will last beyond the century mark than do now.

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