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Research on resilience in stressful times

Basil Eldadah
Supervisory Medical Officer,
Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology (DGCG)
Lis Nielsen
Division Director,
Division of Behavioral and Social Research (DBSR)

Resilience: something we’re all hoping for during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the ability of cells, organs, individuals or societies to resist, bounce back from, or successfully adapt to stressors. Stressors come in many forms: viruses or other pathogens, chemotherapy, physical injury, social adversity or psychological trauma. Resilient people are better able to heal, stay mentally and physically healthy, and maintain mobility or cognitive function.

During home quarantine, loneliness, anxiety, economic uncertainty, and sickness or death among loved ones can compound existing stressors. NIA-supported studies on psychological, physiological, cognitive and other forms of resilience are helping researchers better understand the mechanisms underlying resilience and advance toward the goal of better prevention and treatment approaches for older adults.

Why we study resilience and aging

Measures of resilience — including indicators of the ability to bounce back in immunity, mobility and cognitive ability — often show decline with age. But specific life experiences, environmental exposures and genetic factors may render some people more resilient than others to stressors and age-related conditions, including cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (AD/ADRD). Developing valid and predictive measures of resilience can help clarify the behavioral, social, physiological and neural mechanisms that promote more successful aging.

A broad resilience and reserve portfolio

NIA has sponsored a variety of Funding Opportunity Announcements to accelerate research into resilience, both in animal models and in people. NIA also supports resilience-related research efforts and events throughout other areas of our institution, including but not limited to:

  • NIA recently participated in the trans-NIH OppNet (PAR-16-326), an opportunity to link our behavioral and social research on resilience with work supported by other NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices.

Most recently, several NIA staff presented at the Research Centers Collaborative Network (RCCN) webinar Resilience and Reserve: Defining, Refining and Advancing Research in Aging. They discussed current definitions of resilience and reserve, what makes these topics distinct, and NIA’s portfolio of programs and resources. Archived online, this one-hour webinar is an excellent primer on starting or growing your research in this exciting field.

Submit your innovative ideas and stay tuned for upcoming events!

NIA welcomes innovative applications on resilience in aging at all levels of analysis and in humans, animal models or in vitro systems. Does this spark an idea for you? You can submit a proposal on resilience and aging through the NIH Parent FOAs. Be sure to keep an eye on this blog and other areas of the NIA website for news on the next RCCN resilience webinar coming up later this summer, which will highlight aging biology and neuroscience perspectives.

In the meantime, if you have questions or comments, please add them below, and best wishes for us all to emerge from this current pandemic wiser and stronger!


Submitted by Louise Hawkley on May 27, 2020

I'm delighted to see increased attention paid resilience in older adults; it offers a welcome counter to the all-too common focus on vulnerability in older adults. Much remains to be done to carefully define, measure, and evaluate our conceptions of resilience, but the effort will surely pay off as we learn from those who survive and perhaps even thrive under adverse circumstances. This will surely be even more important as we anticipate the diminished capacity of cognitively impaired individuals to mount a resilient response to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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