Study subjects, traced since birth, now answering aging questions

By Teddy Rosenbluth, The News & Observer

The Dunedin Study was only supposed to last three years.

Researchers set out to follow about 1,000 babies born in southern New Zealand until their third birthdays to better understand develop-mental problems in toddlers.

Fifty years later, those babies, now scattered across the globe and graying, still dutifully return to the lab every half-decade to undergo exhaustive data collection.

The study, considered one of the most notable longitudinal studies in the world, has given rise to more than a thousand scientific articles on a wide range of topics.

Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, married Duke researchers, think the group may hold the key to answering some fundamental questions about aging.

Moffitt, associate director of the Dunedin Study, began traveling to New Zealand when the participants turned 13 to study which childhood characteristics were associated with delinquency and drug use.

When she met Caspi at a research conference — where he wooed her with academia’s version of a pick-up line, “I think you have great data” — she folded him into the project.

The two went back to New Zealand regularly to collect data along with re searchers from the country’s University of Otago.

While there, they inspected nearly every aspect of the participants’ health. They interviewed participants about their relation-ships and behavior, performed brain scans, collected DNA samples and checked the functioning of every organ system.

The study pushed Caspi and Moffitt to approach scientific research in a unique way. Where most scientists spend their careers finding new tools to answer a focused question, the couple works in reverse: They search for questions this powerful study can answer.

Caspi likes to think of the study as a telescope.

“You don’t put the telescope on just one star or even on one constellation,” he said. “You should use it to observe the universe.”

As the participants changed with age, so too did the research questions.

When participants were 3, researchers focused their questions on potty training. In middle school, they asked about sports injuries. Now, as participants turn 50, questions are focused on topics such as menopause and retirement savings.

Using the treasure trove of data collected over a lifetime, Caspi and Moffitt have begun uncovering some mysteries of aging, like why some people’s bodies appear to age faster than others.

The study used biological markers of aging they had been collecting for decades, such as cardiorespiratory fitness, blood pressure and inflammation markers.

The couple also led a team to develop a test that individuals can use to see their pace of biological aging. Researchers trained an artificial intelligence algorithm to identify epigenetic markers associated with rapid aging in the Dunedin population so it can detect the pace of aging in new samples.

“People might want to do this before they join the gym or before they quit smoking … and see if they’ve been able to slow their own aging,” Moffitt said.

The technology was licensed to TruDiagnostics and is available for purchase.

What sets the Dunedin Study apart from most longitudinal studies is its impressive retention rate. Studies that take place over decades often lose participants, which can make a study group unrepresentative of the broader population and results difficult to generalize.

After 50 years, 94% of the original participants have stuck with the study, and they take pride in their contributions to society.

“They come from a small country that’s at the bottom of the world and it’s not even on many maps — they’re used to being ignored,” she said. “Their part in this is almost like being on a winning Olympic team.”

Despite the study’s success, it could be the last of its kind. Caspi said people’s trust in science and government has eroded, making it increasingly difficult to recruit participants for studies.

“I doubt you could do this today,” Caspi said. “To give themselves and their time to science is something that a lot of people just don’t care to do because they don’t trust what we’ll do with it.”

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