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.
The need for the kinds of research supported and conducted by NIA has never been more urgent because the American population as a whole is rapidly aging. Experts believe that within 25 years, 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. And although the rate of disability among older Americans is decreasing, 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.
Through its broad and diverse research programs, NIA is well poised to address the many medical, social, and economic issues raised by the growth of the older population. For example, NIA-supported investigators are using genome-wide association studies (GWAS), i.e., rapid comparisons of the full genomes of thousands of individuals, to identify the genes or specific genetic alterations involved in the development and progression of a number of age-related conditions, including cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, and functional disability. This approach can help to identify people at risk, provide important insights into the disease’s pathology, and even suggest targets for preventive or treatment interventions. Other investigators are working to identify factors that contribute to long life coupled with good health in both model systems and humans; a better understanding of the nature of aging and the mechanisms controlling longevity could enable the development of interventions to extend not only the length but also the quality of life. NIA-supported behavioral and social scientists are studying the economic and societal consequences of a rapidly aging population, and using insights from the emerging field of behavioral economics to develop and test interventions that promote healthy behaviors among older people. NIA also supports a growing portfolio of research comparing the effectiveness of various interventions in diverse populations.
NIA supports initiatives aimed at translating findings from basic science into preventive or treatment interventions. For example, NIA, in partnership with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Mental Health, supports a Translational and Drug Discovery Initiative to expand and intensify the translation of basic research findings into clinical studies and human trials in AD. Components of this highly successful initiative include solicitations for research grant proposals on drug discovery and preclinical development. In addition, the Institutes supports a program of toxicology services for academic and small business investigators who believe they have promising compounds for the treatment or prevention of AD but lack the resources to perform the necessary toxicology studies.
Training the next generation of researchers in aging is a high priority at NIA, and we support several highly innovative programs. For example, since 1987, the annual Summer Institute on Aging Research has provided junior investigators an opportunity to be mentored in the substance and methodology of aging research by recognized experts in the field to enhance participants' potential for success as independent investigators. Racial and ethnic minority investigators and researchers interested in research on minority health are especially encouraged to apply. The Beeson Awards, co-supported by NIH, the American Federation for Aging Research, and several other philanthropic concerns, offer three- to five-year faculty development awards to outstanding junior and mid-career faculty committed to academic careers in aging-related research, training, and practice. Beeson scholars receive funding and resources to pursue their innovative research, protected time for research, mentorship through their own institutions and through the program itself, and extensive networking opportunities. Since its inception in 1995, the Beeson Award has provided nearly $80 million to 152 independent investigators, many of whom have gone on to become leaders in the field of aging research. NIA also participates in trans-NIH activities aimed at encouraging participation of women and minorities and other underrepresented groups in biomedical research.
Finally, the aging of the population is not limited to the United States; rather it is an increasingly global phenomenon. Demographers anticipate that by 2040, the proportion of older people will double from 7 percent to 14 percent of the total world population, with the most rapid growth seen in the developing world. NIA continues to support a number of projects devoted to understanding the implications of population aging at the global level, including an initiative to consolidate and standardize findings from multiple large health surveys from around the world.
For a comprehensive overview of NIA’s plans and priorities, see our strategic directions document, Living Long and Well in the 21st Century: Strategic Directions for Research on Aging, available online.