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’Tis the season for healthy habit research

picture of Luke Stoeckel
Program Director, Mechanistic and Translational Decision Science,
Division of Behavioral and Social Research (DBSR)

Many of us will make New Year’s resolutions that involve healthier life choices. But if you’ve ever tried to turn down that second piece of pumpkin pie, exercise more frequently, quit smoking, or cut back on alcohol, you already know that long-established habits are hard to break. And while new habits can bring joy and purpose to your life, they can be tough to initiate and maintain.

The current pandemic has underscored the need to make changes to help keep us as safe and healthy as possible, such as regular physical distancing, mask wearing, and vaccination. It’s also led to changes in daily routines, some positive and some negative. For some, less time commuting has meant more time for physical activity, but for others, increased caregiving responsibilities have intensified stress levels.

In the past several decades, we’ve learned a lot about the habits that can help us live longer, healthier lives. NIA is funding research to help us understand how positive habits develop and to identify ways that families, individuals, communities, and health care systems can encourage beneficial behaviors in a broad range of diverse populations.

Building a healthy habit takes time

NIA supports habit change research because the evidence shows that improved nutrition, exercise, social engagement, and sleep all support better physical and cognitive health as we age. William James, often described as the father of American psychology, pointed out the goal of changing habits is “to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy” and to “make automatic and habitual … as many useful actions as we can.”

It’s common to hear about diets, books, or products that claim we can change our habits for the better in as little as three weeks. But the science of behavior change presents a more complex reality: It can take between 46 and 488 days to make sustained behavior change or to develop a new habit. We continue to support investigations of how to help people form lasting healthy habits, how long this may take, and the conditions and circumstances that support sustained behavior change.

Areas of behavior change research

NIA has been actively funding research into these questions, both as an institute and through the NIA Common Fund Science of Behavior Change initiative, for many years. NIA has prioritized areas for future habit change research, including:

  • Clarifying the roles of how our psychology (e.g., emotions, motivation) and context (e.g., major life events like a pandemic) shape behavior change
  • Specifying conditions and circumstances that modify the root cause of our behaviors to help inform the design of future behavior change interventions

All NIA programs in this area include a focus on behavioral and social research related to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias prevention and address health disparities in diverse populations.

Here’s where you come in: A call for researchers of habit

NIA recently released two new funding opportunities seeking applications for the prevention of Alzheimer’s and related dementias while advancing the science of behavior change:

We have a number of applicant resources available, including a webinar recording and frequently asked questions for the first one listed. And don’t forget to check out BSR’s funding opportunities and applicant resources webpage for other relevant information.

We’d love to hear your ideas

If this time of year has you and your team thinking of better ways to help older adults make changes to support healthier habits, please check out the links above, email me, or leave a comment below. In the meantime, we wish you a festive and healthy holiday season!

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