Enriching the lives of the elderly
The Institute on Aging — now and in the future
By Fariss Samarrai
In our youth-oriented culture, “the graying of America” is not likely to be the lead story on MTV News. And no one is going to produce a reality show about surviving Alzheimer's disease in a nursing home. But the truth is that a massive generation of baby boomers is heading toward
retirement, and with them come the health problems associated with
To address the many social and health issues involving the aging U.S. population, U.Va. has created an Institute on Aging. Its mission is to enrich the lives of the elderly — now and in the future — by inspiring and coordinating interdisciplinary research, education and service programs at the University in the subject of aging.
“The aging of America is a major societal issue with enormous implications on health care,” said Timothy Salthouse, director of the Institute on Aging and the Brown-Forman Professor of Psychology. “People are living longer, and are healthy longer, but ultimately, many older people will develop Alzheimer’s disease and other long-term health problems.”
One-fifth of the adult population now is over 65, Salthouse said, and the incidence of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 60. Currently, there are about 2.7 million people with Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to rise to about 7 million by 2030 as the elderly population grows from about 16 percent of the population today to 25 percent. “We want to increase life expectancy while compressing the period of poor health. The key is not to live longer but to live better,” Salthouse said.
The institute promotes basic and applied research on topics related to aging, serves as an information and education resource about aging
issues, and seeks to influence the development and implementation of public policy that addresses the needs of older adults. Salthouse noted that in 1930, there were 10 workers for every person over 65. Today, there are 3.5 to four workers for every person over 65. This ratio will continue to decrease, placing huge stress on the Social Security system.
“The population is changing and work needs to be done to face these challenges,” he said.
With funding from the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, the institute provides seed funding for early-stage research projects on aging. Salthouse said investigators need solid preliminary data to convince funding agencies to provide the big money needed to conduct large-scale and prolonged studies. The institute’s pilot grants are designed to help promising projects get started.
Last year, six U.Va. research projects were funded though the pilot grant project, and this year four new grants recently were awarded in a second round of funding.
“There’s a lot of good research at the University,” Salthouse said. “We are identifying projects, putting people in touch with each other and helping to fund early stages of some of this work. We hope to eventually be among the best in the world in a few areas of aging research.”
The Department of Psychology recently hired Paul Baltes, a distinguished researcher in aging, and director emeritus of the Center of Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Baltes “adds a great deal of prestige” to the University’s aging initiatives, Salthouse said. Baltes is known for creating the field of life span psychology and for his research on the effects of aging on cognition. One of Baltes’ missions is to bring distinguished speakers here for an ongoing series of aging lectures. He also will arrange networks
encouraging interactions among faculty and graduate students at U.Va., the Max Planck Society and other prominent institutions.
Salthouse estimates that there are about 300 researchers at U.Va. who are conducting age-related investigations. Areas of research include age-related neurological diseases, aging and robotics and assistive devices, fall prevention, the effects of exercise on aging, and numerous others from a broad array of disciplines and perspectives. He noted that several of last year’s pilot project awardees have already gathered much of the data needed to complete proposals for major funding.
There is one area where the University can improve, Salthouse said, by offering more courses in aging and gerontology. At present, only about four courses are offered, though he expects that to change. “We need to provide more opportunities for students to learn about this area, because aging is applicable to every discipline,” he said. “By establishing the institute, the University is acknowledging the importance of aging studies.” To learn more about the institute, visit: http://www.virginia.edu/aginginstitute/.