Joe Culpepper, 61, of Bogalusa, watched his father-in-law’s cognitive decline due to dementia over the course of three years. He was a “very intelligent man,” Culpepper said, who had a master’s degree and was a band director.

“It was just awful,” he said. “It’s tough taking care of a dementia patient.”

In an interview with Verite News, Culpepper wondered aloud about whether doctors could figure out early warning signs or activities people can do to limit the effects of dementia or likelihood of developing it. “What if you could head that kind of stuff off before it becomes so serious that it wrecked your life and your families, too,” he asked.

It turns out that researchers from Tulane University, Louisiana State University and the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center are working to try to answer questions like the ones Culpepper raised, as part of  a long-running study that he is intimately familiar with. The research teams have been monitoring and studying the heart health of residents of Bogalusa for 50 years, starting with a group of children that included Culpepper who were continuously monitored over the decades, and now they’re going to expand their research to study the brain and how heart health affects it.

The Bogalusa Heart Study, as it’s known, began in 1973 and led to major contributions to the understanding of the longterm impacts of childhood heart health, including confirming that when certain cardiovascular risks, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, develop during childhood, they will continue into adulthood without intervention. The researchers also found that if those conditions are allowed to persist that they could result in hypertension and heart disease later in life. And some of their research was on the cutting edge in the United States in terms of identifying race-based health disparities between Black and white people.

“It’s had a strong impact, not just on the community, but worldwide,” said Lydia Bazzano, principal investigator of the Bogalusa Heart Study and director of the Center for Lifespan Epidemiology Research at Tulane. “In the 1970s … we were really just getting a grip on the major risk factors [of heart disease] and the idea that kids would have these risk factors was totally new.”

Over 16,000 people from Bogalusa have participated in the study. Initially, researchers drove up to schools in Bogalusa, organized students into groups, then checked their blood pressure and weight and drew blood. Now, participants go to a building on Willis Avenue in Bogalusa that houses a clinic run by Tulane to get periodic tests run. The results are shared with researchers at LSU, Tulane and Mary Bird Perkins and with the participants personal doctor if they want.

Researchers working on the study received a $14.5 million dollar grant from the National Institute on Aging in 2019 to study whether high blood sugar levels in childhood can lead to declines in brain health in older age. But Bazzano said she thinks they can do for brain health over the last 50 years what they did for heart health over the last 50 years through looking for connections between cardiovascular diseases and brain diseases because of the cohort of participants they have data on who are middle-aged and nearing older age.

“Kids were not thought of as being at risk for the origins of heart disease and in the same way we’re kind of finding out that middle age is really the origin of risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “And so now that our folks are in their middle ages, we can really take a good look at this heart brain connection.”

These days, in addition to getting regular check-ups for his heart, Culpepper has been involved in memory tests as part of the Bogalusa Heart Study. For part of it, he had to walk up and down his driveway while listing animals or doing basic math, which he called “weird stuff.”

But it’s all worth it if it can help future generations of Bogalusans and other people around the world have healthier hearts and brains.

“I think the benefit has been more to the generations that come after us because of all the information they glean from us,” he said. “I just think that it’s amazing what they have accomplished.”

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Veteran journalist Drew Costley (they/them/theirs) is joining Verite News to cover a variety of topics with a focus on health, climate and environmental inequity. Before coming to Verite, they reported...