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FY 2016 Director's Overview

In 2014, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) celebrated 40 years of excellence in leading the 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: 1) 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; 2) foster the development of research and clinician-scientists for research on aging; and 3) communicate information about aging and advances in research with the scientific community, health care providers, and the public. NIA carries out the mission by supporting 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 laboratories in Baltimore and Bethesda, Maryland.

NIA is the lead federal agency for research into Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and NIA’s comprehensive AD research program spans the spectrum of discovery, from basic neuroscience through translational research and clinical application. The National Alzheimer’s Plan, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Summit in 2012, and allocation of additional funds from the NIH Director in 2012 and 2013 have accelerated momentum in this field. In 2016, several exciting trials incorporating biomarkers of disease – an approach that would have been impossible even a decade ago – will be active (see Program Portrait). NIA will also continue to support treatment trials to slow the disease or alleviate its symptoms, such as the recent study in which NIA-supported researchers found that the anti-depressant citalopram may be a safer and more effective treatment for disruptive agitation in AD than the treatments currently in use.

Our efforts in AD research have been bolstered by the advent of new technologies to generate and analyze enormous data sets. These new technologies have been particularly effective in identifying risk and protective genes for AD. Researchers can now access the first batch of genome sequence data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Sequencing Project (ADSP), a collaboration between the NIA and the National Human Genome Research Institute to facilitate identification of risk and protective genes. NIH recently awarded grants to eight academic medical centers around the nation for using innovative new technologies and computational methods to analyze the genome sequencing data generated during the ADSP’s first phase. The investigators will use ADSP data to identify rare genetic variants that protect against or contribute to Alzheimer’s; explore differences in data from different racial/ethnic groups; and examine how brain images and other biomarkers are associated with genome sequences.

Better understanding of the basic biology of aging may open up new avenues for prevention and cures, and investment in research on the aging process at its most fundamental levels is a major priority for NIA. The establishment of the trans-NIH GeroScience Interest Group (GSIG) to facilitate discovery on the common risks and mechanisms behind age-related diseases and conditions has invigorated the field of basic geroscience, and recommendations from the 2013 GSIG Summit entitled “Advances in Geroscience: Impact on Healthspan and Chronic Disease” continue to energize researchers in this field.

Recognizing that up to half of premature deaths in the United States are due to behavioral and social factors,1 NIA maintains an ongoing commitment to supporting basic behavioral and social research in aging. The NIA-supported Health and Retirement Study remains the world’s premier multidisciplinary source of data on the health and well-being of older Americans, linking objective and subjective measures of health with information about retirement, economic status, family structure, personality, as well as health behaviors and service utilization. Funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act facilitated expansion of the study, including genotyping DNA samples from participants. In FY 2016, research will be ongoing to take advantage of the newly available genetic data to advance our understanding of how genetic, behavioral, and psychosocial factors affect health and well-being. NIA remains an active participant in the trans-NIH Science of Behavior Change initiative and the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network. NIA has also established an initiative to elucidate why the United States lags behind most other industrialized countries in health at older ages and longevity.

The Institute continues to place a strong emphasis on translating scientific discovery into health. For example, researchers with the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders study found that a carefully structured, moderate physical activity program can reduce the risk of losing the ability to walk without assistance, perhaps the single most important factor in whether vulnerable older people can maintain their independence. This is the first specific intervention proven in a randomized trial to prevent mobility disability. Other NIA-supported investigators have recently proposed the first diagnostic criteria for age-related sarcopenia, a loss of muscle mass that is often associated with weakness and is a frequent contributor to frailty in older age. NIA is also partnering with the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute on a major intervention study to prevent injurious falls, a key cause of disability in older people.

Finally, NIA supports several innovative programs dedicated to training the next generation of aging researchers. The Advancing Diversity in Aging Research through Undergraduate Education Program, which supports creative and innovative undergraduate-level research education programs to diversify the workforce in aging; the Grants for Early Medical/Surgical Specialists Transition to Aging Research program to encourage specialists to consider geriatrics research careers; a new initiative combining medical school with a Ph.D. in behavioral or social science; and the Paul Beeson Career Development Awards in Aging Research for outstanding clinician-scientists, all exemplify NIA’s commitment to excellence and diversity in aging research.

NIA’s mission is urgent. The number of Americans aged 65 and older is growing at an unprecedented rate. By 2030, there will be 72 million Americans in this age group; more than double the number from 2000. The number of “oldest old” – people age 85 or older – is expected to more than triple between 2010 and 2050.2 Age is a primary risk factor for many disabling diseases and conditions, and it is imperative to discover new and effective ways to make added years healthy and productive. The Institute recently updated its Strategic Directions to reflect the continuing evolution of our plans and priorities brought about by advances in biomedical science.

1. Schroeder SA. Shattuck Lecture: We Can Do Better – Improving the Health of the American People. New Engl J Med 357: 1221-1228, 2007. Return to text

2. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 2012. http://www.agingstats.gov. Return to text