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Mayo's living lab learns real life lessons about aging

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Healthspan Assessment Laboratory
Mice are seen in the Healthspan Assessment Laboratory at Mayo Clinic Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2012, where they are studied for insights about aging. The chambers allow researchers to monitor respiration and energy expenditure in the mice.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have set up what they're calling a "living lab" to learn more about the effects of old age.

The laboratory is part of the Healthy Aging and Independent Living Initiative, which tests strategies for extending the number of years that seniors live healthy, independent lives.

U.S. Census data show that two-thirds of Minnesota counties have populations older than the national average. It is a trend that has broad implications for everything from the state's budget to health care.

Molly McMahon, a designer for Mayo Clinic's Center for Innovation, wants to know how aging changes a person's life.

With that in mind, she recently asked 10 seniors who have agreed to participate in a focus group what plays into their decisions when they decide to go out. She wanted to know if it matters how many people are going, or whether they're concerned about the cost, or the ease of getting there.

"I think a lot of us think we might live to be a hundred," replied Pat Scoggin. "We got to kind of watch our money a little bit 'cause you know it's got to last as long as we do."

For 11 years, Scoggin and her husband Bob have lived in the Charter House, a continuing care retirement community attached to the Mayo Clinic. Both are 80 years old and in good health.

Pat Scoggin said she doesn't dwell on her age too much, but acknowledges her daily routine has changed as she has gotten older.

"You've got to kind be realistic and say, 'Well you know, there was a day when I could have done that, but you know ... I can't do it now," she said. "You have to kind of reason that out that you can't do exactly what you did at 22."

"We need to stop thinking about aging as being associated with a great majority of chronic diseases and conditions."

The focus group's conversation varies from food and medication, to exercise and technology. It's informal, but these chats are crucial for researchers who are using the lab to explore the idea of "aging in place." The aging center, built inside the Charter House, includes two "test" apartments, which researchers will use to monitor people's health in a space that feels more like home than a research lab.

Scientists say such multi-disciplinary research is increasingly needed, as demographic estimates indicate the number of Minnesotans age 65 and older will increase by 40 percent in the next 10 years. Besides holding focus groups, researchers will use the space to test products such as wireless heart rate monitors and touch screens tablets on Charter House residents like the Scoggins, who volunteer to participate.

Researchers also are investigating how technology can be built into the home to improve quality of life and safety for seniors.

The lab is working with Best Buy and The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society to explore and support new ways to serve the state's growing senior population. 

Nathan LeBrasseur, co-director of the healthy aging initiative, said much of the work that will take place in the new center will focus on how older people can live healthier lives, not just longer lives.

"We need to stop thinking about aging as being associated with a great majority of chronic diseases and conditions," said LeBrasseur, who studies age-related functional decline. "Instead, we need to think about it as the cause. And when we think about it as the cause, we can have a fundamental and transformative impact on the health of older individuals by perhaps developing interventions to correct those processes, those normal biological processes of aging."

At the Clinic's traditional research labs, researchers monitor a mouse that runs on a tabletop treadmill. LeBrasseur said the way mice age is remarkably similar to humans and monitoring how fast mice run on a treadmill can determine how long they're likely to live.

"Even in humans now, gait speed for example, can be really strong predictor of 10-year mortality," he said. "It's really striking to me that measures of physical function have proven to be really strong predictors of overall health."

LeBrasseur is using mice for other types of aging research that may one day prevent many of the effects of aging, from loss of muscle and fat, to humped backs and cataracts. He said research done in the lab and the new aging center will explore new ways for seniors to live as many healthy, independent years as possible.