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Emory launches largest-ever clinical research study in Atlanta

Imagine a day when a simple blood test or an online questionnaire could tell doctors how to prevent an aging-related disease like Alzheimer’s.

That’s the dream of Emory University professor Dr. Allan Levey, who is helping lead the school’s Healthy Aging Study aimed at better understanding Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases that afflict people as they grow older. The goal: find new ways to identify and treat these diseases earlier so people can remain healthier for longer as they age.

Emory’s Healthy Aging Study is the largest-ever clinical research study in Georgia with an ambitious enrollment goal of 100,000 participants in the first five years. Since its soft launch last October, the study has already garnered more than 2,000 applicants with minimal promotion.

“We can absolutely exceed this,” Levey said. “It could be a million, ten million. We’ll be happy to continue recruiting people because the power’s in the numbers.”

By 2050, Americans ages 65 and older are expected to make up one-fifth of the U.S. population, compared with approximately 15 percent of the population today.

As the numbers of older Americans have increased, so too have the rates of chronic diseases, according to a 2014 Census Bureau report. And many of those older Americans are unable or unprepared to afford the demanding costs of long-term care in a nursing home.

“We’ve got a major national crisis building up in the next couple decades,” said Dr. John Haaga, acting director of the National Institute of Aging’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research. “We just don’t understand enough about the epidemiology behind Alzheimer’s and other dementias.”

Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. One in three seniors dies with either Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia — degenerative diseases that will cost the nation an estimated $236 billion in 2016 alone. Nearly 190,000 Georgians are expected to suffer from Alzheimer’s by 2025.

Emory’s Healthy Aging Study, researchers say, can help address the growing problem.

People are living longer but don’t necessarily remain healthy or enjoy a good quality of life during those extra years.

“Their life span is increasing, but the healthy years, or the health span, is really lagging behind,” said Dr. Sharon Bergquist, a member of the Emory study team. “And if we can find new markers and novel ways to approach all types of chronic diseases, people can live healthy longer.”

Atlanta’s diversity — a community of all colors, personalities, backgrounds — is what makes it great for this type of study, said Michele Marcus, a professor at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and also a member of the study's leadership team.

Study participants will be asked to complete memory tasks or answer a short survey every few months with questions about their health habits. Some will also be invited to volunteer for Emory’s ongoing Healthy Brain Study, which also looks to identify predictors of several age-related diseases.

“What is it that people have in common across this diversity that leads to these age-related diseases?” Marcus said.

Though the original purpose of the project was to tackle existing hurdles in understanding the onset of Alzheimer’s, the project is also an opportunity to develop a platform for all aging-related diseases, said Dr. James Lah, another principal investigator of the study.

“It gives us an opportunity to open up a huge group of participants that can be accessed by investigators in any aging-related field — whether it’s brain or heart or mobility health,” Lah said. “Any area that can help expand health span could have a huge impact worldwide.”

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