Epigenetics of Healthy Aging: A Proposed Study

Richard Hessler
Professor Emeritus of Sociology
University of Missouri

The idea of designing a study on the epigenetics of healthy aging stemmed from work with two longitudinal studies, the Aging of Rural Elders in Missouri and the H70 Study of urban Swedish Elders in Göteborg, Sweden. The research question was, what are the predictors of longevity/healthy aging? Variables in both studies were recoded, where possible, to achieve cultural similarity for comparative purposes, and time dependent covariation was used to analyze the risk of dying (odds ratio) for Missouri and Göteborg elders. The variable social networks was a strong predictor of longevity. The greater the number of friends (extensiveness) and the more frequent the interaction (intensity), the more likely it was for the Missourians and Swedes to have had a longer lifespan. 

For the Swedish respondents, we had preliminary evidence that social networks affected the immune system, not the other way around. With that finding in mind, we received permission to download the total number of days in hospital for all the Swedish respondents and look at the number of hospital days in the last year of life. We found a compression of morbidity, with the longer-lived respondents having fewer days in hospital than the shorter-lived ones, perhaps evidence of healthy aging. 

The step into epigenetics in designing a study that looks at socio-behavioral outcomes over time and the genetic factors associated with those outcomes means that I am in unfamiliar scientific territory, hence the assembly of a multi-disciplinary team. The data sets that we would like to use are the original and offspring cohorts of the Framingham Study, now archived at NCI Commons, NIH. These data are longitudinal, socio-cultural, and genetic for the original cohort and their offspring.

Relevant Publications

2003 “The Compression of Morbidity Debate in Aging: An Empirical Test Using the Gerontological and Geriatrics Population Studies H70 in Gothenburg, Sweden,” Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 37: 213-232.

1999 “Cross-Cultural Analysis of Longevity Among Swedish and American Elders: The Role of Social Networks in the Gothenburg and Missouri Longitudinal Studies Combined” (with Bo. G. Eriksson, Valter Sundh, and Bertil Steen). Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 28 131-148.

1995 “Gender, Social Networks and Survival Time: A 20-Year Study of the Rural Elderly,” (with Suli Jia, Richard Madsen and Hooshang Pazaki), Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 21 (3), 291-306.

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