Ladora Thompson
LaDora Thompson, Travis M. Roy Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training. Photo by Cydney Scott

LaDora Thompson has spent much of her career investigating sarcopenia, the muscular weakness that comes with aging, at the cellular and molecular levels. In recent years she has expanded the scope of her research to focus on a significant and related problem for older adults: frailty.

“In clinical practice, frailty is defined as a syndrome,” says Thompson, the Travis M. Roy Professor in the physical therapy and athletic training department. One way physicians diagnose frailty is by assessing five functions: how well a person walks, how strong they are, what their activity and exhaustion levels are, and if they lose weight unintentionally.

Researchers have shown that individuals who are defined as frail have more adverse health outcomes and more additional conditions added to their primary health concerns (“comorbidities”), says Thompson. “They die earlier than individuals who are not frail.”

But in studying sarcopenia and frailty in humans or animals, researchers often look at older subjects—in essence they are studying subjects who are successful in aging, she says. In humans you can study a 100-year-old, but there are many people who die in their 60s.

That research, says Thompson, misses “a piece of the picture of age-related muscle weakness or deterioration of muscle integrity.” She is interested in understanding the muscles of individuals who would never make it to old age. “Perhaps we could look at it in a younger animal right at the very beginning of the deterioration and find what is the trigger,” she says.

She has begun by studying mice over their natural lifespan of 30 to 36 months, using frailty assessments to try to identify those that will not live as long. She and her team have published two papers on the data for male and female mice and have a third under review for identifying sex differences. “In the human literature there’s a theory called the ‘male-female health-survival paradox,’ where females live longer but they have an increased incidence of frailty, whereas males live shorter lives but their amount of frailty is less,” Thompson says. “We’re evaluating whether that occurs in mice. If so, then we can begin to identify what are some of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of why we have this paradox.”

“Everybody is looking for the ‘pill’ that will make life great—I hope it’s exercise. It’s beneficial for every physiological system and it’s very, very easily applied.”

Ladora Thompson

Decades of studies suggest that there is no single physiological trigger involved in frailty and sarcopenia but multiple systems, such as endocrine or neurological changes, underlying DNA damage, or chronic inflammation. “In the long run, I would like to know what the initial triggers are so that we can develop appropriate therapies,” Thompson says.

Frailty may be a particular concern for people with chronic diseases or disabilities because of muscle weakness and poor endurance. One such chronic disability is spinal cord injury (SCI), which is of particular interest to Thompson, the first Travis M. Roy Professor in Rehabilitation Sciences. Roy (COM’00, Hon.’16) was paralyzed from the neck down in 1995, in an accident in his first BU hockey game. There is a dearth of information on frailty’s effect on people with SCI, she says, and this is an important and fertile area for investigation.

Ultimately, of course, she is trying to learn what will help everyone maintain better health as they age. “Everybody is looking for the ‘pill’ that will make life great,” Thompson says. “I hope it’s exercise.

“It’s beneficial for every physiological system,” she says, “and it’s very, very easily applied. I’m not saying everyone must go to the gym. I’m encouraging everyone to keep moving.” With increased prevalence of children with metabolic diseases and diabetes raising questions about diet and activity levels, she wonders if we will see more frailty in generations to come.

“I want quality of life when I’m older,” she says with a smile. “I’m very selfish, because when I’m 80, I want the therapist who’s treating me using the most current evidence-based practice, so I can keep doing all the things I enjoy doing.”

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