How and why do we age, and what can be done to limit how it affects independent living as we get older?

Those are some of the questions that researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Health and three other medical centers will explore as they study muscle cells and how they affect mobility in older adults.

The Muscle, Mobility and Aging study, known as SOMMA, for short, is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging through a $26.5 million grant over five years.

The study is a collaborative effort between Wake Forest Baptist, Sutter Health’s San Francisco Coordinating Center, AdventHealth Orlando and the University of Pittsburgh.

It is considered as the first of its kind in the country.

Researchers will examine muscle cells from 900 individuals age 70 and older to determine the ability of muscle to produce energy. Study participants will be recruited by Wake Forest Baptist and Pittsburgh.

Study participants will be followed for three years. For more information, go to or email sommastudy@wake

“This study will be the first to reveal the combination of muscle properties that most strongly predict major mobility and disability, declines in fitness, walking speed and muscle mass,” said Peggy Cawthon, a co-lead investigator for SOMMA.

“Our plan is for SOMMA’s unique bank of muscle tissue and blood, along with gene expression data and longitudinal clinical phenotyping, to be used by the scientific community to test other properties,” Cawthon said.

“SOMMA may identify novel pathways for which new interventions could be developed,” she said.

According to study researchers, 9 million adults over age 65 cannot walk a distance of a quarter-mile, or can only do so with great difficulty.

“Changes in muscle and our ability to move around can eventually contribute to social, psychological, and physical restraints that impact quality of life, increase health care costs and contribute to overall health decline,” the researchers said.

The only proven intervention, exercise, modestly reduces the risk.

Previous studies on how to preserve independence as we age were conducted with mice, worms and flies, or from human studies of blood specimens.

Researchers said the study “will take many other novel measurements, including measuring the ability of muscle to produce energy.”

“The goal is to understand how humans age, so we can mitigate age-related illnesses and implement measures to preserve fitness and independence with aging,” said Dr. Steve Cummings, the lead investigator for the SOMMA study

“We also will create a unique archive of tissue and blood, with longitudinal measurements of fitness and function that the scientific community can use for studies of the biological basis of aging,” Cummings said.

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