Logan • For 17 years, Utah State University researchers have closely followed most of Cache County's elderly as part of a data-gathering effort aimed at probing cognitive health and aging.
But after investing $25 million, the cash-strapped National Institutes of Health has declined to continue funding the Cache County Study on Memory, Health and Aging, despite the troves of data and research it has provided to help scientists better understand dementia and other age-related conditions.
But Utah researchers remain optimistic that the data set will continue to yield important findings that could pinpoint risk factors for Alzheimer's disease.
"We will benefit from our data for years to come. We have 100 publications in top-tier journals already, and there is no sign of slowing down," said the study's principal investigator, Maria Norton, a Utah State University associate professor of family and consumer studies.
The NIH had provided four rounds of funding for the Cache County project, but such longitudinal, in-depth studies of entire populations are costly. Budget-tightening in Washington kept USU from securing a fifth round last year, although NIH is funding specific investigations based on the Cache County data.
"In times of economic retrenchment these studies slow down or pause. I think of this as a pause," said Ron Munger, a USU professor of nutrition and director of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies. "We can't change that economic policy. We have to decide how we adjust and cope with it. What we'll do is write shorter proposals, over shorter time periods and utilize data that has been collected and make the most of that."
One such study, led by USU psychologist JoAnn Tschantz, explores why Alzheimer's progresses at different rates. The hope is finding ways to slow the mind-robbing disorder expected to afflict 16 million Americans by 2050.
According to Munger, a surprising finding in the Cache County data inspired this inquiry. About 30 percent of the cohort who had Alzheimer's did not register much change in their dementia over the course of the study. Tschantz used this finding to secure limited NIH funding to identify factors that influence the disease's progress.
Discovering those factors would carry huge benefits for patients and their families, Munger said.
The Cache County study was conceived in the early 1990s under the leadership of the now-retired Bonita Wyse, then dean of USU's College of Family Life. The valley, hemmed by the Wellsville and Bear River ranges, was famous for the longevity of its residents. Wyse's aim was to recruit the entire population over the age of 65 and follow them for the rest of their lives. In 1995, USU signed up 5,092 people, 90 percent of the county's elderly.
The study enlisted specialists in geriatric medicine to evaluate participants every few years, giving researchers an unprecedented look at the cognitive function of an entire elderly community over time.
The data have been mined by numerous researchers from several other institutions, most notably the University of Utah, University of Washington, and Duke and Johns Hopkins universities. Today nearly 1,000 study members, about 20 percent of the original cohort, are still alive, according to Norton. Their average age is late 80s.
"So people are passing away and not being examined, which is a huge missed opportunity," Munger said.
While these seniors will not all undergo further cognitive evaluations, researchers still will be able to track the survivors through medical records, death certificates and other documents thanks to a partnership with the U.'s Utah Population Database, according to database director Ken Smith.
The Cache County participants "connect to other demographic data so we could see how long they live, what they died of, and why they are going to the hospital," said Smith, a U. professor of family and consumer studies. As more data are linked to the study, researchers are increasingly able to reach back in time to learn what participants' lives were like decades ago.
Smith has teamed with USU's Norton to investigate stressors early in life such as the death of a parent that may predispose people to Alzheimer's. Such inquiries are only possible by hooking up the Cache County data with historical records, such as census data that can show whether a person grew up in a poor neighborhood, whether her parents were literate or died young, he said.
He believes the Cache County data present many avenues to explore.
"It's left to the imagination of the scientific teams. We're still in the middle of all the discoveries this cohort will provide," he said. "The reputation of the study is unparalleled. It's been a gold mine."