Oregon State University has launched a major initiative to increase its research in the field of aging - an effort that campus leaders hope will culminate in a new Center for Health Aging Research.
The timing, they say, is ripe.
Currently Oregon ranks right in the middle of the pack - 25th among all states - in the proportion of the population that is 65 years of age or older. By 2025, Oregon is projected to be fourth. Clearly, the state is getting older in a hurry.
University leaders recently selected six initiatives for priority funding and investment. The Center for Healthy Aging Research was one of them. Karen Hooker, who directs OSU's Program on Gerontology, said the university has an impressive core of faculty and programs upon which to base a center. OSU's effort, though, will be unique in many ways, she added.
"Because of our faculty expertise, we'll be conducting research on aging from the cellular to the societal level - and that is unusual," said Hooker, who is an associate professor of human development and family sciences. "When you can link the work of the Linus Pauling Institute, which might examine stress response in humans on a molecular scale, with that of family scientists who are studying psychological stress, the impact could be profound.
"Another major difference," Hooker added, "is that OSU's emphasis will be more on processes contributing to healthy aging and the prevention of disease - not on curing the diseases themselves."
OSU's proposed center will have four major core areas: "Diet, Genes and Aging," "Bone Health, Exercise and Function in Aging," "Psychosocial Factors and Optimal Aging" and "Social and Ethical Issues in Technologies for Healthy Aging."
Aging research, says Hooker, is incredibly complex. It can be difficult to separate out factors of influence and track changes in individuals over periods of years. Longitudinal studies are expensive and time-consuming, yet critical. And because factors overlap, interdisciplinary research is a must, she says.
"If you look at a group of 80-year-old Oregonians, some of them will be disabled and some of them will be running in marathons," Hooker said. "Most will be somewhere in between. What explains these individual differences? The only way to know is to look through the lifespan and investigate social context, lifestyle, behavior, exercise, nutrition, genetics and even personality. They all play a role.
"Yet people are malleable," she added. "Most predictors of outcomes in later life are behaviors that can be changed."
OSU already has a number of faculty and research projects under way within the four core areas.
In the "Diet, Genes, and Aging" core, researchers are studying the inability of the body to respond to internal and external "insults" - from simple bone fractures to drug interactions and infections. This vulnerability increases the risk of age-related diseases, from atherosclerosis to strokes and cancer. Researchers also are studying the impact that nutrition can have to ameliorate vulnerability to these stresses.
"Bone Health, Exercise and Function in Aging" will continue the university's work in osteoporosis, balance and other areas that directly affect the role of physical function and fracture prevention in elderly populations. Russell Turner, a leading osteoporosis researcher from the Mayo Clinic and Medical School, recently joined the OSU faculty as director of the Bone Research Laboratory in the College of Health and Human Sciences.
Researchers in the "Psychosocial Factors and Optimal Aging" core will focus on the aging individual within a social context and emphasize the role of families. Current and future research in this area will focus on stress, coping and health, and the interface of physical, psychological and social well-being.
The fourth core also sets the OSU center apart from other aging research programs. Researchers in the "Social and Ethical Issues in Technologies" core will look at technological innovations that enhance living for older adults in their own homes or residential facilities.
"This is a fascinating area of study where researchers are just beginning to tap the potential for restructuring environments," Hooker said. "With the use of technology, they are now creating 'smart' houses that can help monitor residents and increase their safety. For example, load cells can be placed in beds that allow for monitoring of weight, restlessness, and when a person gets out of bed. This information can be used to track effects of a new medication, for example, or unobtrusive monitoring of changes in diet or activity on weight.
"Some people may not like the 'Big Brother' aspect to this use of technology," she said. "But if it makes the difference between an older person being able to continue living at home instead of being placed in a residential facility, many may like having the technology option."
Hooker reported that students in the College of Engineering are currently working with a high technology, fully-wired retirement community, Oatfield Estates, to establish software protocols on how to mine the masses of monitoring information collected and turn it into "actionable units" such as understanding links between daily activities and health.
"We may get to the point of being able to understand daily variability patterns and seeing that, for a given individual, this amount of fluctuation is normal or could be an indicator that something is amiss - for example, noticing subtle changes in daily patterns that may be a harbinger for a health event such as a fall or a heart attack," she said.
One of the areas OSU would like to explore through its aging center, Hooker said, are studies of social acceptability. How much technology, testing and intervention are people willing to tolerate to increase their safety, comfort and independence in their later years?
OSU's Extension Service will play an important role in sharing the results of the research, and in developing programs to improve the lives of Oregonians, Hooker said.
"There is tremendous potential in the field to build on OSU's existing strengths," she said. "And with the graying of America - and Oregon in particular - this should be an important area for decades to come."