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Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Isle study may
have key to
aging diseases

The research, which began in
'65, could help dementia and
Alzheimer's patients

By Helen Altonn


A Honolulu study that began in 1965 with 8,006 men, leading to greater understanding of heart disease, stroke and dementia, now may unlock mysteries of Alzheimer's and other diseases of aging.

Dr. Lon White, principal investigator, and Kuakini Medical Center have been awarded nearly $4.2 million from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Aging for a five-year study.

"We are really doing cutting-edge kind of research," said White, of the Pacific Health Research Institute.

"We are trying to get, in a very detailed way, knowledge that will tell us about all the different kinds of processes that go on with aging."

Key members of White's team for the project, "Epidemiology of Aging and Dementia," are Drs. Helen Petrovitch, Kamal H. Masaki, G. Webster Ross and John Hardman. They began looking at dementia in the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study in 1991. It was an outgrowth of the Honolulu Heart Program that began at Kuakini Medical Center with 8,006 Japanese-American men on Oahu.

Born from 1900 through 1919, the volunteers were identified through the World War II Selective Service registration file. About 2,400 are living, most older than 80.

Two have celebrated their 100th birthdays, Petrovitch said.

White said researchers are dealing with these mysteries: Why do disease processes develop? Why do they affect some and not others? Why do some people escape manifestations of the diseases?

"We have to be able to take the puzzle apart in each of its elements, and it really requires that we understand how the structure of the brain changes and how the function changes," he said.

Petrovitch said it appears that some people may have mixed forms of dementia -- a little of Alzheimer's and maybe some tiny strokes. "When you add that together, it causes a lot of trouble with thinking and memory ... The older you are, you are more likely to get that combination."

White said neuro-imaging (magnetic resonance imaging or CAT scans) during life coupled with postmortem examinations "allow us basically to discern the different kinds of changes that go along with different diseases and different processes.

"By doing that, we are able to try and look at the things people do in their lives, in their jobs, in their diets, in their activities, that influence either in a good way or a negative way how the brain structure changes with age." Then, something simple possibly could be developed to reduce risks for aging diseases, White said.

The seventh examination of the volunteers in 35 years is being completed and the researchers are applying for grants for another five-year study, allowing two more examinations. One grant would be about $7 million.

Petrovitch said the researchers are studying the brain, "everything from mild cognitive problems, all the way up to dementia." They're also looking at problems in balance and movement and Parkinson's disease symptoms.

"The information accumulated is really a world treasure," White said. "My guess is people will be using it 30, 40, 50 years from now ... We are stockpiling and documenting everything very carefully."

In 50 years, he said, researchers may be able to look at children and grandchildren of men in the study group "in terms of family lineage and how they're doing compared with their fathers and grandfathers."

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