The world’s population is aging rapidly, presenting an urgency to address the health problems of the aged. Critical insights on these problems can be gained by examining how the aging process has been shaped over evolutionary time, and how it is influenced by different environments and lifestyles. One University of New Mexico researcher and her team are studying chimpanzees to try to learn more about the aging process in humans.

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Melissa Emery Thompson

UNM associate professor of Anthropology and co-director of the Comparative Human and Primate Physiology Center Melissa Emery Thompson and her team of colleagues recently received an award of more than $3 million over five years for their ongoing research on chimpanzee aging entitled Cumulative Life Course Effects on Aging and Health in a Long-Lived Primate Model. UNM collaborators include associate professor of Computer Science Abdullah Mueen and Anthropology professor Martin Muller.

Martin Muller

In awarding the renewed funding, the National Advisory Council on Aging selected Dr. Emery Thompson for a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award "in recognition of your outstanding record of scientific achievements as a principal investigator on National Institute on Aging (NIA) research projects. In selecting your application for the MERIT Award, the NIA is recognizing your sustained contribution to aging and your leadership and commitment to the field. At the same time, the NIA is expressing its conviction that you will continue to make significant advances in aging research for many years to come."

"This potentially provides us with up to 10 years of uninterrupted funding,” Emery Thompson explained. “This is really exciting because it provides long-term security for our field research projects, and because documenting aging in a long-lived species necessarily requires a long period of study.” The second five-year award will allow them to investigate the factors that contribute to healthy aging.

Abdullah Mueen

“Our project is a collaboration between two long term field studies ̶ the Kibale Chimpanzee Project managed by investigators at UNM and Tufts University and the Gombe Chimpanzee Research Project with investigators at Arizona State University and Emory University ̶ which have between them a total of more than 90 years of continuous behavioral observations of chimpanzees in Uganda and Tanzania. We combine these observations with innovative methods for documenting health and disease processes using non-invasive biospecimens like feces and urine,” Emery Thompson said.

“This was important because, while we have lots of data on aging in small organisms, like mice and worms, we have had little comparative data on long-lived species or those most closely related to us,” she continued. “Our research attracted a lot of enthusiasm both for the ways chimpanzees age similarly to humans, often in ways that distinguish them from other primates, and for the ways that they differ. In particular, chimpanzees appear to resist many of the age-related diseases that are very common in post-industrialized human societies.”

Emery Thompson is particularly interested in how early adult social environments, like social status and availability of social support, interact with disease exposures to shape health and mortality among older chimpanzees.

“The influences of social environments on human health are profound, but it can be very difficult to understand how these processes operate because it is tricky to objectively quantify aspects of human social behavior, particularly if the formative experiences happened many years ago. Primate studies offer a tractable study system where social behavior can be directly observed and quantified,” she remarked.

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