Author and humorist Garrison Keillor. Influential film critic Roger Ebert. Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorcese. Nobel Prize-winning neurologist and biochemist Stanley Prusiner. Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.” In 2007, each of these remarkable Americans continued to lead active and productive lives, making noteworthy contributions to American life and culture. Beyond their undeniable achievements, however, they have one other thing in common: In 2007, each one celebrated his or her 65th birthday.
In reaching this milestone, they join the millions of Americans who are remaining healthy and vital well into older age. They are also representative of a rapidly growing trend. Within 25 years, experts believe, some 70 million Americans will reach age 65 or older – fully double today’s number in that age group. The number of “oldest old” – people age 85 or older – will more than quadruple by 2050, and this group is projected to include nearly one million centenarians, up from three thousand in 1950. As unprecedented numbers of Americans reach retirement age and beyond, profound changes will occur in our economic, health care, and social systems.
The good news is that even as the population ages, the rate of disability among older Americans continues to decline. The percentage of American elders reporting some level of disability fell from 26.5 percent in 1982 to 19 percent in 2004-2005, the most recent years for which estimates are available. (1) However, as the number of older Americans continues to rise, we are challenged to discover new and effective ways to make these added years as healthy and productive as possible and to continue the current trend of decline in disability across all segments of the population.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) leads a national scientific effort to understand the nature of aging in order to promote the health and well being of older adults. NIA’s mission is to:
- Support and conduct genetic, biological, clinical, behavioral, social, and economic research related to the aging process, diseases and conditions associated with aging, and other special problems and needs of older Americans.
- Foster the development of research- and clinician-scientists for research on aging.
- Communicate information about aging and advances in research on aging with the scientific community, health care providers, and the public.
We carry out our mission by supporting extramural research at universities and medical centers across the United States and around the world and a vibrant intramural research program at NIA laboratories in Baltimore and Bethesda, Maryland.
NIA’s research programs are broad in scope. Some NIA-supported researchers focus on the biological basis of aging that may provide fundamental knowledge to predict or preempt disease. Others are working to gain new insights into disease processes and comorbidities and using this knowledge to develop more effective ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases and conditions of aging. Still others are exploring behavioral and social factors involved in aging and how they interact with genetics and biology. All of this research holds potential for the development of personalized interventions. Behavioral and social scientists are also concerned with the economic and societal consequences of a rapidly aging population.
Understanding aging processes and developing interventions that will support healthy aging requires an approach that integrates the work of diverse scientific disciplines and promotes the translation of basic research findings into application in medical practice, public health, and policy development. For example, a major NIA initiative seeks to encourage more investigators to move from purely basic research on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders into translational research, drug testing in clinical trials, and development of effective behavioral interventions. Components of this initiative include solicitations for research grant proposals on drug discovery and preclinical development, as well as a program of toxicology services for academic and small business investigators who believe they have promising compounds for the treatment or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease but lack the resources to perform the necessary toxicology studies. Additional initiatives are targeting the translation of our rapidly expanding understanding of the basic biology of aging to applications for prevention and treatment of a spectrum of age-related diseases and conditions.
An important aspect of research translation is communication of research results to the public. The Institute’s comprehensive communications initiatives support patient participation by reaching out to researchers, health professionals, older adults and their families and caregivers, and the media to provide the latest research findings and evidence-based information on healthy aging and diseases associated with growing older. Key communications-related activities include two websites, the NIA’s main site at www.nia.nih.gov and the Alzheimer’s-dedicated Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center.
NIA optimizes its efforts through collaborations with other federal, nonprofit, private, and international partners. Major collaborative efforts such as the Osteoarthritis Initiative with the National Institute of Musculoskeletal and Skin Disorders; the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative with an array of federal, private, and nonprofit organizations; and the Cognitive and Emotional Health Project (see page NIA-17) provide the opportunity for the Institute to build synergy and leverage resources in pursuit of our overall goal to make it possible for people to have not only longer but healthier and more productive lives in the 21st century.
In the following pages, we describe some of our plans for progress in FY 2009. Our recently updated strategic directions document, Living Long and Well in the 21st Century: Strategic Directions for Research on Aging, is available online.
(1) Manton K, Gu X, Lamb VL. Change in chronic disability from 1982 to 2004/05 as measured by long-term changes in function and health in the U.S. elderly population. PNAS 2006 Nov; 103(48): 18374-18379.