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FY 2017 Director's Overview

The mission of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) 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 with the scientific community, health care providers, and the public.  NIA is also the lead Federal agency for research on Alzheimer's disease (AD).  NIA carries out its 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. 

Now more than ever, NIA's work is urgent.  The number of Americans aged 65 and older is growing at an unprecedented rate, and by 2030 there will be some 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 20501.  Age is a primary risk factor for many disabling diseases and conditions, and it is therefore imperative that we discover new and effective ways to make added years healthy and productive.

An understanding of aging processes at their most fundamental level is a necessary foundation for discovery of new preventive interventions and cures, and investment in research on the basic biology of aging is therefore 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, NIA also maintains an ongoing commitment to supporting basic behavioral and social research in aging2.  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, and 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 also remains an active participant in the trans-NIH Science of Behavior Change initiative and the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network.

The promise of personalized medicine – i.e., the ability to treat the right disease process with the right intervention at the right time – is closer than ever to being realized for many aging-related diseases and conditions.  For example, approaches to systems biology identifying complex genetic and molecular networks, such as the Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP – see Program Portrait), will enable the identification of molecular signatures and networks underlying the various disease processes that lead to symptoms associated with AD.  NIA also is partnering with the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) on a major intervention study testing how to prevent injurious falls, a key cause of disability in older people.  This study is testing an individually-tailored prevention strategy, including a "fall care manager," in community health care systems.  Another initiative supports research to identify behavioral interventions with high potential impact on health outcomes among individuals with multiple chronic health conditions, a common issue among older adults.

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, 2012 and 2015 Research Summits, and allocation of additional funds over the past several years have accelerated momentum in this field.  Late in FY 2015, NIA released 10 Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) incorporating themes and recommendations from the Research Summits.  They fall into seven broad categories, and offer opportunities for investigators in virtually every aspect of AD research – including health disparities, caregiving, epidemiology, diagnosis and prediction, molecular and cellular mechanisms, brain aging, and clinical trials.  FOAs have set-aside funds associated with them, and will be supported according to the availability of funds in FY 2016 and FY 2017.

NIA's 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.  For example, researchers can now access genome sequence data from the Alzheimer's Disease Sequencing Project (ADSP), a collaboration between NIA and the National Human Genome Research Institute to facilitate identification of risk and protective genes.  The opening of the AMP-AD Knowledge Portal – a new data sharing and analysis resource developed under AMP – (see Program Portrait) and release of the first wave of data will enable sharing and analyses of large and complex biomedical datasets.  Researchers believe this approach will ramp up the development of predictive models of AD and enable the selection of novel targets that drive the changes in molecular networks leading to the clinical signs and symptoms of the disease.

Finally, NIA takes seriously its responsibility to carefully steward its resources in the interest of the American people.  The Institute supports several innovative programs dedicated to training the next generation of aging researchers.  These include the Paul Beeson Career Development Awards in Aging Research for outstanding clinician-scientists and the Butler-Williams Scholars Program, a "boot camp" to prepare emerging investigators in aging research to compete successfully for grant funding.  NIA also employs an in-depth process each year to update and refine plans and priorities based on advances in biomedical science.  NIA recently updated its strategic directions document to reflect the continuing evolution of our overall priorities3.

1. 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.

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