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Women band together to support a U study on health of the aging brain

Anita Kunin, Barbara Forster, and Sally Kling led a fundraising effort for the Minnesota Women's Healthy Aging Project. (Photo: Richard Anderson)

What makes us age? What happens when women, in particular, grow older?

Nobody yet knows which combination of health factors contributes to the rate, variation, and quality of aging, but acquiring that elusive information could allow us to foresee the path we’ll follow as we age and perhaps change that path for the better.

Apostolos P. Georgopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., Regents Professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Neuroscience, is leading a study that promises to discover the ingredients in brain structure and function, as well as genetics, that produce healthy aging. The groundbreaking study, called the Minnesota Women’s Healthy Aging Project, involves five other University investigators and is believed to be unlike any study of the aging process previously or currently under way.

The first phase of the study began earlier this year. One hundred healthy women between ages 65 and 99 underwent a series of tests designed to measure their cognitive and language abilities, with the ultimate goal of determining markers that establish the timeline of brain aging.

The tests included MRIs of the brain to assess structure, magnetoencephalography images to determine functionality, the Mini-Mental State Examination (a standardized test used to determine cognitive abilities), speech and language fluency evaluations, and a DNA analysis.

The study’s funding source is as original as its scope and research methods.

To move the study ahead, the University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis contributed access to equipment, space, support staff, and faculty researchers’ time. That left $160,000 needed to launch the project’s initial phase.

Georgopoulos asked Sally Kling of Minneapolis, whom he had met a few years prior, to organize a fundraising effort. Kling was interested in the project because of a history of Alzheimer’s disease in the women in her family, and Georgopoulos knew Kling was an experienced fundraiser.

Soon Kling had drafted Anita Kunin to help. Then Kunin brought in Barbara Forster, and the three of them together enlisted Karen Bachman and Emily Anne Tuttle to help as well.

“We did it by thinking outside of the traditional fundraising box,” Kling says. “There were no dinners, lunches, or galas.”

Instead, the fundraisers hosted small gatherings of women where Georgopoulos explained the study and the need for support. They also sent letters to 174 friends and colleagues describing the urgency of the project and asking for contributions large and small.

The fundraising effort exceeded its goal, raising more than $164,000.

“It was extraordinary to have a researcher of Dr. Georgopoulos’s stature looking for money privately and [to have] a previously unformed group of women willing to give support based on meetings or letters from women they knew,” Kling says.

And it really drove home the impact that a small group of motivated people can make.

“We [had] women responding to women on behalf of women,” Kling says. “I am very proud of our results.”

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