Your pet dog could help people live longer, healthier lives

The Dog Aging Project is now recruiting.

More than 32,000 pet dogs have joined the Dog Aging Project — a massive study that hopes to help both dogs and people live longer, healthier lives.

Why it matters: If good health had a nemesis, it would be aging — as we get older, our risk of developing cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and many other diseases increases.

By studying aging, researchers hope to find better ways to treat — or even prevent — these diseases. They might even find ways to slow or halt the aging process, increasing the number of healthy years we each get.

The challenge: Studying human aging is tough, though. People live 72 years on average, so researchers would have to follow a person for years or even decades to see the process in action.

It’s far easier to see the impact of aging on animals with shorter lifespans, such as mice — which live only a few months in the wild and at most 2.5 years in a lab — or fruit flies, which have a lifespan of just a week or two. 

Dogs are susceptible to many of the same age-related physical and neurological diseases as people.

But those creatures are so small and so different from humans that research on them often doesn’t translate to humans.

They typically don’t share our lifestyles or environments, either, both of which can impact aging, and they aren’t susceptible to many of the diseases humans get in our later years — a mouse isn’t going to naturally develop dementia as it ages, for example.

The idea: Dogs are a far better model for studying human aging. Many breeds live 10 to 13 years, which makes studying them easier than humans logistically, and they’re close to us on an evolutionary scale, which could help research translate.

Dogs are susceptible to many of the same age-related physical and neurological diseases as people, including cancer and dementia, and dogs kept as pets go through life right next to us — that means they’re exposed to many of the same lifestyle and environmental factors we are. 

The Dog Aging Project aims to collect data on upwards of 60,000 pet dogs over a 10-year period.

The Dog Aging Project: In 2018, researchers at more than a dozen institutions launched the Dog Aging Project. 

The project is expected to take 10 years, and the goal is to collect data on upwards of 60,000 pet dogs to help scientists figure out ways to combat the problems of old age in both people and canines.

“We’re going to learn in a relatively shorter period of time than we would to study the human population a lot about how biology, lifestyle, and environment can affect healthy aging in dogs, and then have that be applicable to humans,” said Francesca Macchiarini at the National Institute of Aging, which is funding the Dog Aging Project.

The Dog Aging Project is an open-data study, meaning all of the data collected through it will be available to scientists across the world for their own research. 

“It is an honor to share our work with the scientific community,” said chief veterinary officer Kate Creevy. “The Dog Aging Project is creating a resource with the power to transform veterinary medicine, aging research, and many scientific and non-scientific fields of inquiry.”

How it works: Dog owners can nominate their pet for the Dog Aging Project through its website. If chosen, they’re asked to submit their dog’s medical records and complete one extensive survey about the animal’s health every year, as well as several shorter surveys.

Volunteers may also have the option of sharing biological samples (fur, urine, blood, etc.), collected by a local vet, or submitting cheek swabs from their dog for genetic analysis. 

“We hope to have findings that translate into better diagnostics and treatments for both dogs and humans.”

Marta Castelhano

Owners can also choose to enroll their dog in specific clinical trials — researchers from Cornell University and the University of Washington, for example, are enrolling 200 dogs with a form of canine dementia in a trial looking for links to Alzheimer’s.

“We hope to have findings that translate into better diagnostics and treatments for both dogs with cognitive dysfunction and humans with Alzheimer’s,” lead investigator Marta Castelhano said. “This is what our real hope is — to have an impact on families.”

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