Living Long & Well in the 21st Century: Strategic Directions for Research on Aging
The face of aging in the United States is changing dramatically. People are living longer, achieving higher levels of education, living in poverty less often, and experiencing increasingly lower rates of disability. Life expectancy nearly doubled during the 20th century with a ten-fold increase in the number of Americans age 65 or older. Today, there are approximately 35 million Americans age 65 or older, and this number is expected to double in the next 25 years. The oldest old—people age 85 or older—constitute the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Currently about four million people, this population could top 19 million by 2050. And living to 100 is becoming increasingly commonplace. In 1950, there were approximately 3,000 American centenarians. By 2050, there could be nearly one million. The challenge for the 21st century will be 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.
Modern medicine and new insights into lifestyle and other environmental influences are allowing a growing number of people to remain healthy and socially and emotionally vital into advanced ages. As life expectancy increases, however, diseases and conditions that threaten the health of older people remain a concern. For example, more than half of all Americans 65 or older show evidence of osteoarthritis in at least one joint. One in every two women and one in four men over age 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Alzheimer’s disease (AD), cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes remain widespread among older Americans. In addition, many older Americans suffer from multiple health problems, and the existence of such comorbidities often complicates treatment and can dramatically affect quality of life.
Our ability to reduce the burden of illness among older adults will depend on an increased understanding of the dynamics of aging and how they interact with various environmental and lifestyle factors in individuals. We need to explore “aging” not as a single process but rather as an intricate web of interdependent genetic, biochemical, physiological, economic, social, and psychological factors, some of which are better understood than others. In addition to research on the biological basis of aging, some scientists are working to gain new insights into disease processes and comorbidities, the prevalence of which increases with advanced age, and to use this knowledge to develop more effective ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases and conditions of aging. Others are exploring behavioral and social factors involved in aging and how they interact with genetics and biology. Still others are concerned with the economic and societal consequences of a rapidly aging population. Building on past discoveries, we will continue to focus on finding effective interventions to ensure that as people live longer, they can do so in better health and with greater independence.
The National Institute on Aging
The National Institute on Aging leads a national scientific effort to understand the nature of aging in order to promote the health and well-being of older adults. NIA is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers that make up the National Institutes of Health, a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Institute’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 in aging.
- Communicate information about aging and advances in research on aging to 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.
This document outlines the broad strategic directions of the Institute and provides a point of reference for setting priorities and a framework for systematically analyzing the Institute’s scientific portfolio and assessing progress in achieving our mission. NIA strives to ensure that funding decisions and research initiatives address current and projected public health needs and take full advantage of scientific and technological opportunities for advancing the field of research on aging. With constant monitoring of the health needs of our older population and regular consultation with our stakeholders, we will optimize our efforts to improve the quality of life of older adults.
Our goals are to:
- Improve our understanding of healthy aging and disease and disability among older adults.
- Continue to develop and disseminate information about interventions to reduce disease and disability and improve the health and quality of life of older adults.
- Improve our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, other dementias of aging, and the aging brain. Develop drug and behavioral interventions for treating these diseases, preventing their onset and progression, and maintaining cognitive, emotional, sensory, and motor health.
- Improve our understanding of the consequences of an aging society and provide that information to inform intervention development and policy decisions.
- Improve our ability to reduce health disparities and eliminate health inequities among older adults.
- Support the infrastructure and resources needed to promote high-quality research and communicate its results.
Our vision is to:
Achieve a time when people in their “golden years” enjoy robust health and independence, remain physically active, and continue to make positive contributions to their families and communities.