Dr. Ted Cuddy never would have guessed the summer job he took between years of medical school would have led to a life-long passion.
As a young student, he was interested in the Manitoba Follow-up Study because it gave him an opportunity to hone his skills doing electrocardiograms (“in the old days it was really an art,” he says) and using other specialized equipment.
“The high altitude chamber was intriguing to me,” says Dr. Cuddy with a smile. “Here I was in second or third year and we were putting live subjects in this and taking them to 40,000 feet, seeing how it would affect their mentation.”
Since the study began in 1948, it has followed 3,983 originally healthy young men, building a database from which to study cardiovascular disease. It is the largest and longest-running investigation of its kind in Canada.
As his medical education progressed, Dr. Cuddy continued working with the Study as he was able.
“I spent a lot of time writing envelopes,” he laughs, describing the painstaking process of collecting surveys from participants spread across the country and beyond.
Over the course of the Study, staff and volunteers have invested a huge amount of time and energy in gathering data, inspired by the tenacious spirit of Dr. Frank Mathewson, who launched the study in 1948 and was devoted to it for more than 40 years.
Dr. Cuddy became the Study’s second director, serving in that role from 1985 to 2000. Today, the retired cardiologist, who refers to his age as “a long way past 75” spends two or three days a month contacting doctors and hospitals to request participants’ medical records, and reviewing mortality cases with current director Dr. Bob Tate.
While the Study has stayed true to Dr. Mathewson’s original mandate, its focus has expanded, explains Dr. Tate.
“The fundamental goal was to follow cardiovascular disease in a group of men and that still is the goal,” he says. Consequently many publications have appeared in medical journals. The most recent publication from the MFUS research team describes how knowledge of six common chronic diseases diagnosed before age 75 years (ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, peripheral arterial disease, diabetes mellitus and cancer) can be used to predict a man’s chance of survival to his 85th birthday as ranging from 25% to 75%.
In addition to diagnostic findings, the Study is painting a portrait of aging that looks beyond physical health.
“There are so many definitions attached to successful aging,” says Dr. Tate. “Some of the clinical definitions were very rigid and ruled out a lot of people. We designed a survey to look at aspects of physical, mental and social functioning and have asked our study members for their own “lay-definitions” of successful aging.”
Thanks to the input from Study participants, that definition is expanding.
Five hundred participants are alive today; their average age is 91. Three times a year, they receive questionnaires about their health, quality of life and nutrition.
The Study is now tracking 86 themes, in 21 categories, that relate to successful aging. Dr. Tate says four of these have been associated with better survival: being physically active, being content, being useful or volunteering and having a positive outlook.
“[We’re looking at] whether people with certain themes are more likely to remain vibrant longer,” says Dr. Tate. “What are the precursors of institutionalization or diagnosis of some degenerative condition?”
The Study is unique, he explains, in that it began tracking participants while they were healthy, rather than waiting until a critical incident, such a stroke, has occurred. This means the information is useful to a wide range of investigations.
“We have 64 years of data here,” says Dr. Tate. “There’s a lot of data in those files that are still valuable for researchers outside of this study.”
The Study is supported, in part, by income from the Manitoba Follow-up Study Fund, one of more than 60 endowments that have been managed by The Winnipeg Foundation since the Manitoba Medical College Foundation wound down its operations in 2011.
The Fund receives regular gifts from study participants, says Dr. Tate.
“For many years, many of our study members would write a cheque for $10 or $50 or $1,000 to support the ongoing activities of the study,” he says. “I don’t think you’d find any study anywhere in the world where participants fund it themselves.”
To Drs. Tate and Cuddy, this monetary investment is just one indicator of participants’ commitment. (Another is the Christmas cards they receive from participants.)
“We’ve got study members who say ‘this is important to me because it keeps me involved in my own personal health.’ Others are more altruistic,” says Dr. Tate.
“Some say ‘I just feel it’s important to be involved in research that may benefit other Canadians’,” adds Dr. Cuddy, who shares their enthusiasm for the project.
For him, the work has been a labour of love.
“Joy is the proper word,” he says. “It filled me with joy to do it.”
This article was originally published in Working Together — A Magazine of The Winnipeg Foundation. To download the Fall 2012 edition, click on http://cms.tng-secure.com/file_download.php?fFile_id=23061