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, research centers, and medical centers across the United States and around the world as well as a vibrant intramural research program at NIA laboratories in Baltimore and Bethesda, Maryland.
The American population as a whole is rapidly aging; by 2030, there will be some 72 million Americans ages 65 or older – more than double the number in that age group as compared with the year 2000. The number of “oldest old” – people age 85 or older – is expected to more than triple between 2008 and 2050. Population aging will bring profound change to our economic, health care, and social systems. With age a primary risk factor for many disabling diseases and conditions, it is imperative that we discover new and effective ways to make added years as healthy and productive as possible, continuing the recent trend of decline in disability across all segments of the population.
Through its broad and diverse research programs, NIA is well poised to address these challenges. For example, identification of genes or genetic alterations involved in the processes of aging itself, as well as in the development and progression of age-related diseases or conditions, can help to identify people at risk, provide important insights into pathology, and even suggest targets for preventive or treatment interventions, and the use of new and emerging technologies continues to accelerate discovery in this area. NIA-supported investigators have used genome-wide association studies (GWASs) – rapid comparisons of the full genomes of thousands of individuals – to find genes associated with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), cardiovascular disease, and Parkinson’s disease. GWASs are ongoing to identify additional AD genes and genes involved in cognitive and functional decline. Investigators on the groundbreaking Health and Retirement Study are currently conducting genome-wide studies of participants to identify potential genetic risks and influences on a broad range of health conditions as well as social and behavioral aspects of normal aging.
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. Scientists are working in a number of areas to identify factors that contribute to long life coupled with good health in both model systems and humans. For example, NIA-supported investigators recently found that the drug rapamycin extends lifespan in a mouse model. (Harrison et al. Rapamycin fed late in life extends lifespan in genetically heterogeneous mice. Nature 460: 392 – 395, 2009.) This research has more clearly identified the mTOR pathway (rapamycin’s target in the cell) as important across species for extending lifespan, and these findings are guiding longevity researchers to target proteins in the same pathway in ways that do not cause rapamycin’s side effects, including suppression of the immune system, in humans. Other research includes the Long Life Family Study, which is providing further data into the genetic and other factors that contribute to a long and healthy life, and the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy (CALERIE) study, which investigates the effects of two years of food restriction in normal-weight individuals in reducing the risk of disease and in slowing the aging process.
NIA-supported behavioral and social scientists are describing 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 is also continuing its efforts to enhance the evidence base for health care decisions both at the individual and societal levels; notably, the Institute is emerging as a leader in research comparing the effectiveness of various interventions in diverse populations (see Program Portrait, p. NIA-17 . ) One major comparative effectiveness research (CER) study is the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) Study, which compares the effects of a moderate-intensity physical activity program to a health education program on prevention of mobility loss disability in older Americans.
The translation of findings from basic science into prevention or treatment is a high priority for NIA. For example, in 2010, NIA renewed funding for its Edward R. Roybal Centers for Translational Research on Aging, which move promising social and behavioral research findings into programs and practices that will improve the lives of older people and help society adapt to an aging population. Center researchers have successfully developed and implemented programs devoted to maintaining older driver safety and ensuring functional design and navigability of web sites for older individuals. Consistent with the NIH commitment to re-engineering the therapeutic development pipeline, and in partnership with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Mental Health, NIA also supports an active Translational and Drug Discovery Initiative to expand and intensify the translation of basic research findings into clinical studies and human trials in AD (see Program Portrait, p. NIA-18 .)
Training the next generation of researchers in aging is critically important, and NIA actively supports the NIH “New Investigators, New Ideas” initiative. In FY2010, the NIA supported some 556 full-time training positions and 234 career development awards around the nation, including participants in innovative programs such as the Paul B. Beeson Career Development Awards in Aging Research. These awards are co-supported by NIH, the American Federation for Aging Research, and several other philanthropic concerns, and support outstanding junior and mid-career faculty committed to academic careers in aging-related research, training, and practice. Since its inception in 1995, the Beeson Award has supported 162 independent investigators from 42 of the nation’s top research institutions; many of these individuals 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, population aging is an increasingly global phenomenon. A number of projects co-supported by NIA investigate population aging in developing and developed nations. Investigators on these studies have identified potential causes for why the US has lagged behind other high-income countries in life expectancy since 1980, and have found that later retirement might improve cognition. The Institute also leads an initiative to consolidate and standardize findings from multiple large health surveys from around the world (see Program Portrait, p. NIA-20 . )
For a comprehensive overview of NIA’s plans and priorities, see Living Long and Well in the 21st Century: Strategic Directions for Research on Aging.