Nature versus nurture is an age-old mystery, but Australian researchers are determined to unravel its secrets with the upscaling of a 15-year project examining the cognitive health of twins.
Launched by the University of NSW in 2007, the Older Australian Twins Study (OATS) has already contributed important findings in the global quest for answers to the question of genetics versus environment.
More than 620 OATS participants aged 65 or older initially underwent rigorous psychological and physical checks in person every two years but numbers dwindled to 392 by 2016.
Now a move to an online platform will allow the research to include one third of the nation’s twins living outside major cities.
It will also facilitate the study of differences in access to specialist health care, health-seeking behaviour and other potential contributors to the shortened lifespan of people residing in regional and rural areas.
Peter Jones, one of the twins participating, said he thinks the move online was a ‘good idea’.
“Doing it online is easier than paperwork,” he said.
“It was easier to answer, straight forward and there were no difficult questions.
“There were some technical things I had difficulty with and I called the team about it and they helped me.”
Fellow participant Christopher Lovell agreed.
“I could do it at my own speed, and at a time that suited me, made it very flexible,” he said.
Because identical twins share 100 per cent of their genetic code or about twice that of non-identical twins, twin studies provide rare opportunities to isolate factors contributing to health outcomes in older age.
Co-ordinator Vibeke Catts said IT advances have allowed comprehensive assessments with older twins in their homes, something not feasible in 2007 when only half had internet access.
“Being able to acquire contemporary data through an online platform rather than relying on participants’ recollection of their circumstances and health in midlife strengthens the reliability of data obtained,” she said.
“With additional funding we hope to expand our online study to include a younger age group and demonstrate that various interventions aimed at reducing risk factors earlier in life provide benefits across the individual’s remaining decades.”
Lead researcher Professor Perminder Sachdev said the depth and breadth of data collected from such a large sample makes OATS internationally unique.
OATS has brought together geneticists and researchers in neuropsychiatry of older adults to examine key issues in cognitive ageing and dementia.
It measures a range of behavioural and environmental factors, including lifetime physical and mental activity, physical and psychological trauma, losses and life events, early socio-economic environments, alcohol and drug use, occupational exposure and nutrition.
Once online, it aims to involve more than 1000 pairs of twins.