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; and 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 in 2000. The number of “oldest old” – people age 85 or older – is expected to more than triple between 2008 and 2050.1 Population aging is causing profound changes 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.
A major priority for NIA is investment in research on the aging process at the most fundamental levels. New and emerging technologies such as genome-wide association studies (rapid comparisons of the full genomes of thousands of individuals), as well as related “deep-sequencing” technologies, are supporting and accelerating basic discovery, particularly the identification of genes or genetic alterations involved in disease, disability, or the aging process itself. Recently, an international team of scientists led by NIA intramural researchers found that human aging is associated with a small number of focused changes in gene expression, mainly in individual genes associated with immune cell function.2 Many of the changes appeared to be involved with processing messenger RNA – the molecule that carries information from the nucleus of the cell into the cytoplasm, where it is instrumental in developing proteins. These findings suggest that disruption to messenger RNA processing may be a key underpinning of human aging processes. Elsewhere, NIA-supported investigators were part of an international team that identified the most common genetic causes known to date for two devastating neurological diseases, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia – a milestone discovery that offers clues to these diseases’ underlying mechanisms and may contribute to the design and testing of possible therapies. Initiatives to explore the basic biology of aging from a systems perspective – i.e., by investigating the complex interactions among individual gene products, biochemical pathways and cell biological mechanisms that impact aging,– and to elucidate the effects of aging at the single-cell level began in FY 2011 and will continue to be active in FY 2013.
NIA supports a comprehensive portfolio of research that builds on basic discovery to develop new preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic interventions for age-related diseases and conditions. For example, the identification of relevant Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) biomarkers through the groundbreaking Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, along with a deeper understanding of the disease’s pathology and clinical course, have facilitated the first revision of the clinical diagnostic criteria for AD in 27 years. These new criteria address for the first time the use of imaging and biomarkers in blood and spinal fluid, and unlike the previous guidelines they cover the full spectrum of the disease, from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) through clinical dementia. To expand and intensify the translation of basic research findings into clinical studies and human trials, NIA, the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, and the National Institute of Mental Health support an AD Translational and Drug Discovery Initiative that currently funds over 40 projects, including a number of pilot clinical trials. In a recent, highly promising pilot trial, a nasal-spray form of insulin delayed memory loss and preserved cognition in people with cognitive deficits ranging from MCI to moderate AD. A larger-scale study to confirm and extend these results is under development.
Other NIA-supported clinical trials include the LIFE Study (determining whether a structured exercise program can prevent mobility disability in older people) as well as trials of interventions for osteoporosis, hypertension, anemia, chronic pain, diabetes, and other conditions.
NIA also continues to support research on the economic implications of aging and health care reform. In an ongoing study, the state of Oregon randomly assigned 10,000 low-income uninsured adults to the state’s Medicaid program (out of a pool of 90,000 individuals who applied). The initial results from this study indicate that enrollees increased use of health care services and therefore program costs, but also reported improved health and well-being and reduced financial strain.
Finally, NIA supports several innovative programs dedicated to the task of training the next generation of aging researchers. For example, the prestigious Paul B. Beeson Career Development Awards in Aging Research, co-funded by NIA and several philanthropic concerns, support outstanding junior and mid-career faculty committed to academic careers in aging-related research, training, and practice. Beeson scholars are emerging as leaders in the field of aging research. NIA’s new Grants for Early Medical/Surgical Specialists Transition to Aging Research (GEMSSTAR) program provides support for early stage clinician-scientists who have recently completed their clinical training and are embarking on a career in aging research in their specialty area. Recognizing the need to promote diversity in the research workforce, NIA also participates in the NIH Clinical Research Education and Career Development (CRECD) Program, which provides grant support to minority institutions that offer doctoral degrees in the health professions or in a health-related science.
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, at www.nia.nih.gov/about/living-long-well-21st-century-strategic-directions-research-aging.
Overall Budget Policy: The FY 2013 President’s Budget request for NIA is $1,102.650 million, an increase of $0.522 million, over the FY 2012 Enacted level.
Funds are included in R&D contracts to support trans-NIH initiatives, such as the Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences Opportunity Network (OppNet).
- Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Older Americans 2010: Key Indicators of Well-Being. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. July 2010. http://www.agingstats.gov.
- Harries LW et al. Human aging is characterized by focused changes in gene expression and deregulation of alternative splicing. Aging Cell 10: 868-878, 2011.