"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

20 years a guinea pig

By on October 25, 2017 in Articles with 0 Comments

Susan Rae Sampson studied Northwest Nature Writing to learn local flora and fauna after retiring from her Seattle-area law firm and moving to Wenatchee. She has since had environmentally-related poems and articles  accepted for publication by five literary magazines.

By Susan Rae Sampson

I don’t remember how I was recruited, but I am one subject of a long-term study of health and happiness among middle-aged Americans. It all started 20 years ago, when I was only 50.

My study is a “longitudinal” study, meaning that the same subjects are followed year after year.

My study is known as “MIDUS,” for mid-life in the U.S. It looks at physical, genetic, social and psychological factors that a subject experiences during his or her middle-aged years that may affect health and happiness while aging.

I had at least three reasons for agreeing to be studied.

First, such studies provide data that become evidence-based medicine. I am a believer in evidence-based medicine, including both western and traditional Asian therapies.

MIDUS recently studied me for several days at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where posters near my room touted UCLA’s “Integrative Medicine” program blending western medicine with holistic Chinese medical practices such as acupuncture.

Second, I owe my robust good health, and my very life, to medical interventions at least three times in the past. Being a guinea pig is a way I can express my gratitude to medical science. Further, one of my sons is a health sciences researcher who has told me how challenging it is for researchers to keep subjects involved in longitudinal studies, so I don’t mind helping out.

Third, the MIDUS study is not very invasive. I’d be away from home a couple of nights, I’d have to give up my morning coffee and my evening wine for the duration. No big deal.

Whether to participate would be a much tougher decision if I were asked to take an experimental medicine with possible unknown side effects. That would be the situation of former President Jimmy Carter, who was treated for melanoma with an experimental drug at age 90. I suspect that he and his doctors agreed to his being a guinea pig for the drug because he had already lived a long full life, in case it didn’t work.

I’d also have a hard choice about taking part in a study if I had a condition that needed treatment when I might actually receive a placebo instead.

Rather than leave patients wondering what they were taking, a grant proposal that I read recently would give subjects their choice of being treated with the conventional surgery or a variation on the conventional technique. Since the proposal would examine an unpredictable outcome, choosing to participate would still present a difficult decision.

But as I said, MIDUS is not very invasive. It involves reporting a very detailed personal and family health history, reporting physically and emotionally traumatic events, sleep patterns, significant happy events, and generally on a sense of well-being and contentment. It tests physical agility, but only gently. Yes, I can stand up and sit down out of a chair five times quickly.

The researchers were emphatic that my data would be treated confidentially. Information including identity would be kept in a locked metal file cabinet in a locked office. I laughed when I saw the locked cabinet: It was a standard office file cabinet. A cop friend once showed me how he could pick a lock like that in one minute — he did it all the time on drug raids.

In the past was a test involved naming as many animals that I could think of in one minute — I can still race through aardvark, bear, camel, donkey, elephant, fish, goat, hippopotamus, ibex, jackass, kangaroo, lion, monkey, nene, octopus, pig, quetzal, rooster, snake, tiger, unicorn (nobody said it had to be a real animal), vixen, walrus, zebra, then supplement that list, if anybody ever asks me again.

A decade ago, and again recently, I was connected to electrodes enough to look like Frankenstein’s creature and wrapped in loose elastic bands around my chest and abdomen to measure my blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate, then I was tested on computer games.

Four words flashed on the monitor in front of me, one at a time, repeated randomly and rapidly. The words were “red, yellow, green, blue.” The words were shown in colors that might not match the word. For example, the word “red” might be shown in any of the colors.

My task was to concentrate on the color, not on the word, and to press a key in the color that matched the color on the screen. Concentrating was more challenging than I expected, and I suspect that a kid who played video games regularly could whup me if the test were a contest. Before starting and after I finished the exercise, I soaked my saliva into a plug of cotton. It will be tested for cortisol, the stress hormone.

After resting and soaking another cotton plug, I faced the next game, doing arithmetic. I saw an addition or subtraction problem momentarily, then the problem disappeared and I saw an equal sign. The sign faded, and I saw an answer that was either correct or not, and I had to press a key that said either “Yes” or “No” to the answer.

The simple problems were easy to mark, but the game went much too fast for me to add or subtract pairs of three-digit numbers, even though I’m quick with arithmetic.

I realized that I needed a strategy: I calculated only the right-most digit of the answer, then when I saw the answer, if the last digit was correct, I figured I had a 50-50 chance of choosing the correct answer. Of course, I could have guessed the answer every time, but I think I improved my odds of getting a correct response by calculating the right-hand column. I needed a strategy — I found a strategy.

The purpose of the test was not to test my mathematical ability; it was intended to stress me out. The game only amused me, so I’d be surprised if my cortisol went up terribly much.

I got a full body bone density scan while lying on my back with blood pressure cuffs on my arms and ankles. A machine passed a bar over my body like the spray bar in an automatic car wash. My bone density wasn’t great — thanks for that gene, Mom and Grandmother.

I had good circulation to my extremities (yes!) I donated a sample of my rare type B+ blood. Weird as a vampire, the phlebotomist turned off the lights before he drew the blood sample. He rushed to seal it in an opaque box. It will be examined for the level of immune system activity reflected in my RNA, but RNA breaks down if it’s exposed to light.

He loved my prominent veins — he admitting looking at peoples’ veins habitually. Otherwise, he was a nice young man.

The last battery of tests measured my gait.

A decade ago, I walked up and down a long hall for two minutes while a trained observer watched. Only neurologist, orthopaedist or physical therapist could assess a great deal from that, but this time, the test was metered precisely and generated data that anybody could read. I wrapped sensors around my shoes and around my lumbar spine, and took off for my two-minute hike.

When we were done, the MIDUS technicians escorted me to a waiting Lincoln town car and whisked me off to LAX for my flight home.

MIDUS will provide me the results of some of my individual tests in due course, but the results will pertain generally to 3,000 subjects.

MIDUS data are available to researchers through the National Institute on Aging, and the study has generated over 1,400 papers published in 250 medical journals as of 2017.

I expect to be a subject until the study ends when I’m 74.

Extra credit reading:

• www. MIDUS.wisc.edu

Do You Believe in Magic, by Paul A. Offitt, MD. Dr. Offitt distinguishes evidence-based medicine from so called “alternative medicine.”

Gene, by Siddhartha Mukerjee, Scribner NY (2016) The author, a physician specializing in cancer, is the author of the prize-winning book The Emperor of all Maladies. His new book focuses on the rapidly emerging science of the effects of genetics on physical and mental health, beginning with his own family’s experience of mental illness.

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