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A valuable data resource: Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging

Luigi Ferrucci
Luigi FERRUCCI,
Scientific Director,
Office of the Scientific Director (OSD)
.

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, or BLSA, is one of the world’s longest running studies of aging. Started in 1958, the BLSA enrolls healthy volunteers ages 20 years and older and follows them longitudinally—for life—even performing an autopsy in those who consented.

How can I get BLSA data for my research?

I want to encourage researchers who study issues related to aging and have questions that require the unique design and depth of information available in the BLSA to submit an analysis proposal to use the data. More information about the BLSA study design and the process for submitting analysis proposals for review is available on the BLSA website. Here are some of the reasons you might be interested in taking a look—or perhaps another look—at the rich BLSA data resource.

What can the BLSA data tell us?

BLSA data are most suited for addressing:

  • outstanding mechanistic questions about the interaction of diseases and aging affecting functional status and quality of life in older people
  • understanding the natural history of the transition from health to diseases in aging individuals
  • identifying at an early, still asymptomatic stage, biomarkers that predict the development of certain diseases or a condition, such as diabetes or dementia

It is also important to note some limitations of the BLSA data. Because the BLSA was designed around mechanistic questions focused on longitudinal stability and change, it is not a traditionally representative epidemiological study. Therefore, the data are not suited for investigations of prevalence and incidence.

What does the BLSA measure?

During a 3-day visit, BLSA participants receive a battery of tests assessing many biomarkers and physiological parameters.  These measures include, but are not limited to:

  • mobility
  • cognition
  • brain and nerve structure and function
  • body composition
  • muscle strength
  • bone and joints
  • multiple sensory functions
  • glucose metabolism

A complete list of measurements is available online, along with the participant eligibility criteria.

Follow-up visits occur every 4 years for participants age 60 and younger, every 2 years for participants between ages 60 and 79 years, and yearly when they are age 80 and older. Some measures have been collected in the same participants for more than 40 years and often mark the transition between their health and disease development. 

What makes the BLSA so unique?

Using a longitudinal approach, BLSA explores trajectories of changes of multiple physiological, medical, psychological, and behavioral parameters over the lifespan in the same individuals.

Before the BLSA, research on aging was only cross-sectional, conducted by comparing characteristics of people of different ages. NIA's founding scientific director Nathan Shock and a few others realized that this method was intrinsically flawed: the life of a 20-year-old woman in 1934, who is now in her 80s, was very different than that of a 20-year-old woman today. Therefore, it would be extremely difficult to distinguish between differences due to age and those due to divergent life experiences.

Learn more about BLSA’s history.

Welcome BLSA’s new director!

A photo of of Dr. Stephanie Studenski wearing glasses and a bright pink jacket.On January 24, 2014, we welcomed Stephanie Studenski as Chief of the Longitudinal Studies Section in the Translational Gerontology Branch of NIA’s Intramural Research Program. In this role, she directs the BLSA.

Stephanie has extraordinary experience in this area and is well-suited to take over the reins of the BLSA. Over her 30-year career, she has conducted observational and clinical trial studies focusing on human aging and age-related disease, mainly using biomechanical and neuroimaging techniques to evaluate risk factors and mechanisms of late-life disability. Her work to translate her findings into clinical practice, where she led efforts to develop physical performance measures for clinical use and designing and testing novel interventions to improve mobility and reduce falls, are particularly valuable as BLSA looks to increase activities with a translational focus.

The possibilities for examining the existing BLSA data are most simply limited by our ability to formulate new hypotheses and analytical tools. I welcome your comments below.

 

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