The study is being conducted by Dr. Claudia Kawas, a medical doctor and professor of neurology at the University of California in Irvine. However, the study actually started about 30 years ago ... long before Dr. Kawas was in Irvine.
Between the years of 1981 and 1984, UCI researchers sent surveys to the residents of Laguna Woods Village (then called Leisure World). Nearly 14,000 residents completed them. The surveys asked a wide range of questions over topics such as health, marital status, the activities in which they participated, foods they ate, vitamins they took, alcohol consumption, etc.
The average participant was 73 years old at the time of that first survey. Two-thirds of them were women. Most were white and about 40% were college graduates. During the following years, the original group of participants were asked to update their information in 1982, 1985, 1992, and 1998. Gradually, of course, the group got smaller.
Then, in 2003, UCI researchers took these dusty old folders off the shelf and decided to see how these people were doing. They were able to find nearly 1900 of them who were still alive and in their 90's or older. Approximately 1600 of them enrolled in Dr. Kawas' current study and agreed to submit to extensive testing.
In addition, 306 people in this group agreed to donate their brains to the researchers after death. So far, they have done autopsies on approximately 210 of those brains.
The research has been fascinating and I have summarized it below after watching both the "60 Minutes" episode as well as a YouTube video by Dr. Kawas.
UCI Research on Longevity:
* Vitamin consumption did not seem to help people live longer, although it may help in other areas, such as preventing fractures, etc.
* Drinking a glass or two of alcohol of any type (not just red wine) occasionally (not necessarily daily) seemed to help people live longer.
* Caffeine from all sources, including soft drinks, chocolate, tea and coffee did make a difference. People who consumed about 200 mg. of caffeine a day (2-3 cups of coffee) seemed to live longer. People who consumed too much or too little did not live as long.
* Being of average weight or heavier seemed to be protective; being too thin was associated with an increased risk of early death. People who were underweight in their 70's had a 50% increase in their mortality rate. People who were of normal weight or overweight in their 70's had a 3% lower mortality rate for each year they lived.
* While having low blood pressure was healthier for younger seniors, having high blood pressure seemed to benefit those who are over the age of 90.
* It was beneficial to stay mentally, physically and socially active as long as possible. About 45 minutes a day of physical activity seemed to help people live untill their 90's. More time spent in exercise did not make a difference. In addition, the activity did not need to be intense in order to benefit this age group. It did not have to be jogging and it did not have to be all at once. It could be broken up into two or three periods of activity a day.
* As for leisure/social activities, those were also associated with a longer lifespan.
UCI Research on Dementia:
* There are more than 100 pathologies that can lead to dementia. Alzheimer's is only one form of dementia, although it is one of the most common. The more different pathologies you have, the higher your risk of developing dementia.
* Researchers have long believed that plaques and Amyloid tangles in the brain are related to Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia. However, the brain autopsies that have been completed to date are bringing this into question. So far, half of the people with dementia had plaques and tangles, while half did not. In addition, the reverse has also been true. Half of the people without dementia had plaques and half did not. Dr. Kawas is now concluding that plaques and Amyloid tangles may not be as closely related to Alzheimers and other forms of dementia as we first thought, although there is still some reason to believe that it does matter. Researchers are concluding that dementia is more complicated than they first thought.
* Three or more microinfarcts or mini-strokes in the brain can multiply your chances of having dementia by five times.
* Age seems to matter the most in regard to dementia. By age 85 about 5% have dementia; at 90, 10% of all seniors have dementia; by age 95, 20% have dementia; by 100, 40% have dementia.
* Low oxygen levels in the blood, especially below 93%, doubled your chances of developing dementia.
* Low walking speed resulted in an eleven times great risk of dementia.
* People with a weak hand grip had a five times greater risk of dementia
* High blood pressure and high cholesterol apparently REDUCES your chances of dementia (although these are still related to a higher incidence of heart disease and strokes). Researchers are now studying whether it is the blood pressure and cholesterol themselves, or if it is the drugs that are given for these illnesses, that provide the protection.
This report was fascinating ... and they are not finished, yet. They intend to continue studying this group of people until they have all died. Who knows what other incredible facts are still to be discovered?
If you want to watch the entire "60 Minutes" episode for yourself, which also includes an update on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, you can find it here:
If want to see an even more in-depth lecture by Dr. Kawas, here is a YouTube video of her giving a guest lecture at the University of California in Davis:
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Photo credit: Photo of a clubhouse at Laguna Woods Village was taken by author, Deborah-Diane. All rights reserved.