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BLSA History

It started with a conversation…

For the most comprehensive and longest running longitudinal examination of human aging in the world, NIA's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) had a simple beginning.

BLSA Founders: Dr. William W. Peter, Dr. Nathan W. Shock and Dr. Arthur NorrisIt started with a conversation in 1958 between Nathan Shock, Ph.D., Chief of the Gerontology Branch at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and William W. Peter, M.D., a retired U.S. Public Health Service officer and missionary doctor. Peter had a long-established reputation for his dedication to medicine and wanted to know how he could make a final contribution—donating his body to science. But Shock had something else in mind. He wanted to discuss with Peter the direction he believed aging research should take.

Breaking with scientific convention, Shock wanted to study normal aging, and he wanted to do it by repeatedly evaluating the same people over time. He hypothesized that important concepts pertinent to aging could only be understood by looking at healthy, independently living people at regular intervals over a number of years. Shock didn't just want bodies donated to study aging after death; he wanted living people participating in scientific studies.

It was a radical concept that intrigued Peter. He volunteered to be the first participant.

Soon, Shock and Peter were joined by study coordinator Arthur Norris, described by Shock as his "steady right hand." The three men outlined the new study's parameters. The BLSA would "observe and document the physical, mental, and emotional effects of the aging process in healthy, active people."

Women were not originally part of the study design but joined the BLSA in 1978, offering scientists the opportunity to better understand the influence of sex on aging, especially important because at the time, women lived 8 to 9 years longer than men. Many of the original female participants were wives or widows of male volunteers.

Today, NIA's Intramural Research Program in Baltimore welcomes more than 1,300 male and female BLSA participants ranging in age from their twenties to nineties, who come regularly for a variety of tests to help scientists observe changes over years of life.