Medical school professor studies chronic illness in people over 100 years old

Updated: July 4, 2017 at 11:35 a.m.

A medical school professor is researching the presence of chronic illness in patients age 100 and older.

Raya Kheirbek, an associate professor of medicine, said that this generation of centenarians, people in their 100s, are one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., but they have not been adequately studied by medical researchers. Her research, which was released in April, was reviewed by the Journal of American Geriatrics last week.

“I think it’s important that we look into a generation that no one looks into,” she said. “We don’t really have enough evidence based in literature and most of those patients don’t make it to the end of clinical trials.”

Kheirbek said that her interest in the topic began when she treated a 108-year-old women who was part a case study prior to her current project. She said the patient was suffering from vascular disease, heart failure, hypertension and general frailty, but her mind was sound.

“I said to myself, ‘she is so resilient, and I’d like to study the group to see what factors contribute to their well being,”’ she said.

Kheirbek said that her past research focused on developing models to predict how long someone with a chronic illness has left to live. She said that this prediction method was often no better than making an educated guess because unmeasurable factors like psycho-social conditions play an important role in modeling someone’s life-expectancy.

Kheirbek’s most recent research focused on patients being cared for by the Department of Veterans Affairs utilizing medical records from 3,351 centenarians, she said. The study exaamined the patients’ lifespan and “healthspan,” the amount of time someone lives in good health.

This data was compared to records from 31,121 octogenarians, people age 80 and older, and 52,420 nonagenarians, those 90-years-old and above, according to the study.

Kheirbek said her study looked at veterans in VA treatment. She said she was interested in how this generation coped with the stress of events like World War II and the Great Depression.

The current generation age 100 and older often didn’t smoke or consume alcohol, and obesity was nearly nonexistent, she said. Kheirbek added that those approaching 100 were less likely to have chronic illnesses than people from age 80 to 90.

“These are people that survived the evils of poverty and the evils of war, and made it to that age,” Kheirbek said. “It’s important for me now to dig deeper into that group and try to figure out if I can capture their resilience.”

Kheirbek said that the next steps of the study will be to investigate methods of resilience training for younger generations as a way to help them cope with anxiety and depression.

Additionally, Kheirbek said she is looking at the presence of mental illness, the rate of dementia, and cardiovascular risks.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Kheirbek’s research focused on patients in Virginia. It was conducted on patients being treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. We regret this error.

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