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Recommendations for priorities in future research on aging are included in a new report from the Federal Task Force on Aging Research. The panel, convened under congressional mandate, points to major potential scientific advances in the field -- from discovering the cause of Alzheimer's disease and understanding the basic biology of aging cells to improving memory in old age and developing alternatives for long-term care. It offers 192 specific recommendations for increased emphasis in 10 general areas of research.
HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala said the task force blueprint will help set priorities and target resources. "America's older population is increasing at a dramatic and unprecedented rate, and the importance of a strong research program in aging is clear," said Shalala. "Research is key to understanding how later life can be healthy, independent and rewarding. Research is also a major weapon in our efforts to control costs for the diseases and disabilities that too often accompany old age."
The panel, made up of 38 representatives from Congress, federal agencies and the public, cited specific research initiatives in 10 areas: biological processes, diseases and disabilities, mental disorders, health care, social and behavioral functioning, an aging society, economic security, social and supportive services, special populations, and research and data resources. A "real potential" exists for major scientific advances in the near future in all of these areas, said the task force. For example:
- Genetics -- Scientists are beginning to learn the contribution that genetic factors have as risk factors for disease. "Understanding the linkages between genetic predisposition and disease processes offers enormous potential for the development of improved treatments," according to the report.
- Cell Biology -- Research is providing increasing insight into the regulation of cell division and the role that oxidative damage may have in altering the structure and function of cells. This research will help scientists learn more about cell atrophy with age and about cell proliferation that leads to many cancers. Knowing whether oxidative damage can be moderated by diet, lifestyle changes, or even biological interventions also would be a major advance in understanding how cells age.
- Long-term Care -- Researchers have analyzed various models of long-term care for older people in the community, in assisted-living arrangements, and in nursing homes. These models need to be studied on a large scale to know more about which programs are most effective -- and most cost-effective -- in serving the needs of older people and their families.
"It is an exciting time in research on aging," says Richard J. Hodes, M.D., director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which directed the task force for HHS. "In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the quality and intensity of scientific endeavors in this field. The NIA's mission in the future will be to help maintain that momentum."
The aging of the U.S. population has occurred steadily over the last century, but growth in the numbers and proportions of older people will rise sharply in the coming decades. Today, there are about 33 million people aged 65 and older, making up 13 percent of the total population. By 2030, according to the Bureau of the Census, the percentage of older people will climb to 20 percent. In addition, there will be a dramatic increase in the number and proportion of very old people, those aged 85 and older, who are often in most need of care. Now 3.5 million, the number of people aged 85 and older will total nearly nine million by 2030.
The NIA, part of the National Institutes of Health within the Public Health Service in HHS, is the lead federal agency conducting and supporting research on the biomedical, social, and behavioral aspects of aging. Ronald P. Abeles, Ph.D., NIA associate director for behavioral and social research, served as executive secretary of the task force. Frank Whittington, Ph.D., Georgia State University, was senior research policy advisor to the panel.