Sunday Special: A picture of health

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In 1942, Tom Murphy just squeaked through his Royal Canadian Air Force physical.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/07/2008 (5139 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 1942, Tom Murphy just squeaked through his Royal Canadian Air Force physical.

To be chosen for aircrew duty, your height had to be between 5-foot-8 and 6-foot-2, recalls the St. James senior.

“I was allowed to keep my shoes on to get the 5-foot-8,” the 84-year-old admits with a chuckle.

That fateful decision charted the flight path of Murphy’s life. He not only flew planes in the Second World War, but spent his whole career as a pilot.

More than a decade ago, he beat prostate cancer. For 40 years, he has kept up a morning fitness regimen that includes weightlifting, stretching, squeezing a hand grip and riding a stationary bike. “I ride that thing for 15 minutes and cover four-and-a-quarter miles,” he declares.

“The exercising is why I’m as spry as I am today — no doubt.”

Murphy didn’t realize it on the pivotal day of his RCAF medical, but the records of his height, weight, blood pressure and medical history — as well as a then-innovative electrocardiogram — would lead to his inclusion in a landmark medical study.

He was one of nearly 4,000 aircrew recruits who were tracked down after the war by Winnipeg’s Dr. F.A.L. Mathewson and asked to have their military physicals become the foundation of the Manitoba Follow-up Study (MFUS).

The study, housed at the University of Manitoba’s Bannatyne medical campus, is believed to be the world’s longest-running continuous study of health and aging in a specific cohort.

Launched on July 1, 1948, it is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month. It was originally designed to study cardiovascular disease development. As the men have grown elderly, it has evolved into a study of successful aging.

The Manitoba project is not nearly as high profile as the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed thousands of residents of Framingham, Mass. But the Framingham study was launched in September 1948, so the Manitoba study is older by two months.

And the MFUS is special in another way: When its federal funding was cut off in 1983, the members stepped up and kept it going through donations. They wrote cheques totaling $60,000 to $70,000 each year, until about eight years ago when the study regained significant federal grants to continue.

“Something like this must be unique in the world,” says Dr. Bob Tate, a methodical professor of community health sciences who has poured his heart into the study for 33 years and became its director in 2001.

“It’s a remarkable journey — and it’s still going.”

Of the original study members, about 900 are still living, with a mean age of 87. About one-third have developed coronary heart disease.

They are spread across Canada, with a few in other countries. For 60 years, they have been remarkably dedicated to making sure their doctors send their health records to Winnipeg. The study has mailed out forms and reminders to the men.

“If we’d sent them to the doctors, we’d never have seen them again,” says Dr. Ted Cuddy, a retired cardiologist who led the study for 13 years and still donates his time to it. “This study really belongs to the members.”

About 25 surviving members live in Manitoba. The vibrant Murphy and three others who live in St. James — all in their 80s and all wartime pilots — got together for lunch with Tate this week to mark the 60-year milestone.

Bifocals and hearing aids have replaced their flight goggles and helmets, and the four gents aren’t breaking the sound barrier for speed as they cautiously file outside to pose for a photo. But none would be described as frail. They’re sharp-witted, curious, sociable and actively enjoying life.

None is overweight, and the three who smoked all eventually quit. Three of the four still drive.

Frank Parker, 87, has been married for 64 years. Although he can no longer cross-country ski or go boating because of vision problems, the former Air Canada pilot and his wife still go to their cottage.

“We’re busy as can be,” he says.

Parker says he had good genes, but also attributes his longevity to having a close family and leading a moderate life.

“Not that I haven’t had a few wild days and nights,” he adds.

Al Bartlett, who is 83 and single, just returned from motoring to Vancouver, alone in his canary-yellow car. Still passionately interested in planes, he stopped in Chilliwack, B.C., because he wanted to check out a company that sells plans for building full-size aircraft.

“I keep my nose in it,” he says about aviation. “A lot (of elderly people) don’t have an interest in anything constructive.”

Hal Wishart, 88, is a joker with a lust for life who mentions his crush on screen siren Rita Hayworth. He is active in the Wartime Pilots’ and Observers’ Association and has helped to organize a number of its reunions.

Wishart says a light-hearted attitude is one of his keys to long life.

“Have fun. Be jolly,” he says. “Take life lightly. Go along with the stream or get out of the canoe.”

Are these men proud that 60 years’ worth of their health records have gone into a huge database that has helped to identify risk factors and patterns of disease?

“Sure — why not?” says Murphy. “If it helps somebody, if it changes one person’s mind on things for the better…”

If the men don’t make a big deal of their contribution to science, Tate believes it’s partly because the same sense of duty that led them to enlist in the RCAF has motivated them to be loyal to the study.

“Many of our men have remained incredibly healthy,” he adds. “Of the 900, around 250 have never had a diagnosis of any chronic condition, never been hospitalized, never had a surgery.”

The MFUS men mirror the general population in most ways, such as their average blood pressure and smoking rate. For those who have died, the causes are consistent with all Canadian males: 40 per cent have succumbed to cardiovascular disease and 25 per cent to cancer.

But remarkably, their overall mortality rate is 30 per cent lower than that of the average Canadian man. They are simply living longer.

Part of the likely explanation is that only excellent physical specimens were selected for the aircrew to begin with. “These are special people,” says Cuddy. But belonging to the study has also motivated many members to be proactive about their health.

“Because they were having their health status followed, they (took) much more care and more interest in their care.”

Cuddy, who is 78 and “doesn’t feel old,” often gets long-distance calls from members or their wives, asking for a second opinion on surgery or treatment. The researchers also get letters from study members — sometimes very personal ones. “We’re father confessors,” says Cuddy.

The study has taken on a family feeling. As the four members say goodbye after lunch, they joke about marking anniversaries far beyond the 60th.

“It should be a real good party when it’s 75 years!” cracks the spunky Parker.

For more information on the Manitoba Follow-up Study, visit www.mfus.ca

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

The Manitoba Follow-up Study

The 60-year-old longitudinal health study, based at University of Manitoba, is the largest in Canada and believed to be the longest-running in the world.

It has followed the health of 3,983 Canadian men who were in their 20s and 30s in 1948. Today, about 900 of the men are still alive, and are in their 80s and 90s.

Until 1963, the men were examined every five years by their own doctors, although those who were career pilots (about one-quarter) usually sent in more frequent reports. Contact with the men increased in frequency. Today, they are contacted twice a year.

Until 1975, all the data was on paper. Bob Tate, a statistician, was hired that year on a six-month contract to begin computerizing it. He never left. Today, he is director of the study.

In keeping with the theme of longevity, the study has had only two previous directors. Founder Dr. F.A.L. Mathewson led the research from 1948 to 1988. Cardiologist Dr. Ted Cuddy took over from 1988 to 2001.

The Manitoba Follow-up Study has published more than 40 papers in medical journals. But it has a low profile compared to the famous Framingham Heart Study based at Boston University, which has published much more than 1,000 papers.

One “major regret” of the study, says Cuddy, is that Mathewson was turned down by the federal government when he wanted to include cholesterol levels. “We could have had very, very robust data to add to the study.”

An example of the study’s findings is that a man who has atrial fibrillation, a common heart-rhythm disturbance, has a 2.5-times greater risk of stroke but is no more likely to have a heart attack, than a man without the abnormality.

One fascinating finding, published in 1994 and believed to be a world first, is that a man’s height alone is a predictor of heart disease and mortality. Simply stated, shorter men are at greater risk of dying of heart disease than taller men.

In 1980, the study published that sudden cardiac death is significantly more likely to happen on a Monday than any other day. The finding was picked up by many publications, from The New York Times to the National Enquirer. Today, with nearly 30 years more data, the fatal-Monday phenomenon holds true.

The study owes its success to its devoted members, the researchers say. Only a handful have dropped out. Their response rate to questionnaires is far higher than average for research studies.

With the study now looking at aging, the men are asked how they define successful aging. Analyzing their responses and mortality, Tate has statistically correlated a sense of contentment, feeling useful, staying physically active and having a positive outlook with a higher rate of survival.

Ten years ago, when the study reached 50 years, participants gathered in Winnipeg. The study leaders were amazed and delighted that 200 members and spouses attended. After a scientific presentation on the study, “the questions were terrific — in some respects more intelligent than if we had presented it to medical staff,” says Cuddy.

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