Reviving 1960s data, researchers aim to reveal Alzheimer's secrets
One in every three seniors dies with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia.
And, according to the Alzheimer's Association, that rate is only expected to continue to rise. By 2050, the association expects Americans will develop Alzheimer's at a rate of one person every 33 seconds.
The cost for the care of patients affected by this debilitating brain disease is expected to top $1 trillion by then.
So researchers are scrambling to figure out the risk factors for Alzheimer's and dementia, much as they did decades ago to demonstrate that smoking less and exercising more meant a lower risk of heart disease.
One research group in particular is looking to Portland students to test their theories. The American Research Institute, based in Washington D.C., got its start with a first-of-its-kind nationwide longitudinal study of 440,000 high schoolers.
Students from the classes of 1960 to 1963 at Southeast Portland's Washington High School took part in the study, and through the years are periodically contacted again for more information. (Washington High School no longer exists — it was sold as a surplus building and was renovated to be the Revolution Hall event space on Southeast Stark Street.)
Kay Toran, who graduated in 1960, said as a kid, she had no idea what she was signing up for. But age has given her the perspective of how important this sort of research is.
"This is really, really great that, after all of this time, that we are in a position to provide different information," Toran said.
The 75-year-old is still going strong, having just come back from a three-week trip walking all over Italy. Toran hasn't retired yet either, working as a social worker and now as president and CEO of Volunteers of America Oregon.
But she says not all of her former classmates are as healthy.
"We have aged differently," Toran said. "Some people are like me. But there are some people who are quite elderly and need a lot of help. And who knows the reason for that?"
That's precisely what Susan Lapham wants to know. The principal investigator for the Project Talent Aging Study, Lapham is hoping to get as many people as possible in her sample to respond to the questionnaires.
"We hope that everyone participates, so we have a good quality study," Lapham said.
The vast amount of data from the original Project Talent is mined to this day for scientific research on trends and indicators. The students, like Toran, spent two days in March 1960 taking tests and answering questionnaires about many aspects of their lives.
In Lapham's aging study, she wants to see if there were any common lifestyle, family or other indicators that signaled a higher risk for Alzheimer's or dementia in their later years.
"I really do think that we'll be able to at some point say: 'Here are the three things you could be doing to develop a lower risk for dementia,' " Lapham said. "I just don't know what those things are right now."
The study is hoping for the participation of 22,500 of the original nationwide participants, including hundreds from 11 high schools in Oregon. Data collection will continue through the end of the year, with results expected to be published in 2019. The study is funded through a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Participating Oregon high schools in 1960:
Portland: Washington High School
Pendleton: Pendleton High School and Junior High School
Eugene: Willamette High School
Gervais: Union High School
Salem: Academy of the Sacred Heart
Vernonia: Union High School
Waldport: Waldport High School
Colton: Colton High School
Medford: Rogue River Junior Academy
Sisters: Sisters High School