In Brief

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Italian National Research Council have launched a $5 million, five-year international research program to uncover genetic processes involved in certain age-related traits and diseases. Known as ProgeNIA, the project began in November and will be directed by Giuseppe Pilia, MD, of L'Instituto sulle Talassemie ed Anemie Mediterranee in Cagliari, Sardinia.

Sardinia is a mountainous island surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its remote location, Sardinia has experienced little immigration and its people have inherited many of the same genetic traits. The study includes more than 4,000 men and women, ages 14 and older.

"With this project we want to study aging, and in particular to identify genes involved in the development of several pathophysiological conditions typical of old age," said David Schlessinger, PhD, chief of the NIA's Laboratory of Genetics. "The Sardinian population, thanks to its genetic patrimony, can make a fundamental contribution to the understanding of human biology."

Participants will be examined for high arterial stiffness and positive emotions to determine whether a genetic relationship exists between these traits. Researchers plan to contact family members of subjects with extreme levels of one or both factors to determine if they share these extremes. Investigators will then try to identify the underlying genes for these traits through genetic analysis. As Schlessinger explains, "Once the genes for a certain complex trait are identified within a founder population, researchers can use this information to isolate interacting genes and assess their importance in more heterogeneous populations, like those of mainland Europe or the United States."

The NIA's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging cites vascular stiffness as an important predictor of death from heart disease. But positive emotions, such as joy, happiness, love and excitement, can also impact life satisfaction and health as people age. Investigating aspects of both physical and mental health, scientists hope to identify the relationship between their genetic components.

"This study can ultimately help prevent some disease by letting us know who has the risk factors that indicate they should change diet or exercise or otherwise change their lifestyle in a way that might save lives," Schlessinger says.