Linking Individuals, Families, and Environments (LIFE)

The number of people in the United States over age 65 is forecast to more than double in the next quarter century, growing from 35 million to 72 million-or 20.7 percent of the U.S. population. In Oregon the projections are even higher, as older adults currently comprise 13% of the state's population, and will comprise more than 25% of the population by 2050. Aging is also a global phenomenon, as the number of people over age 60 worldwide is projected to double from 550 million in 1996 to 1.2 billion by 2025.

This "graying" of America and the world presents opportunities and challenges. There has been a structural lag in society's response to this aging revolution; "business as usual" is no longer sustainable. Institutions of higher education must provide the intellectual capital to study and impact aging processes at all levels - from cellular to societal. Universities must deliver high quality professional programs to educate future leaders to design responsive health care, housing, and social options for the aging population. OSU has a strong reputation in providing education and professional training in aging through the university-wide Program on Gerontology and through the OSU Extension Service. We are poised to make a difference.

OSU has the capacity to produce basic and translational science that will inform new interventions designed to benefit aging individuals, families, and society at large. The proposed Center for Healthy Aging Research will expand this capacity. The funding from this new initiative will provide a permanent mechanism for bringing researchers together at OSU to plan, coordinate, and conduct collaborative, multidisciplinary studies designed to optimize the health and well-being of aging individuals and their families.

Funding will increase the involvement of students in gerontology research and enrich outreach and training for future professional positions in aging. The Center will offer opportunities for graduate and undergraduate OSU students to learn about aging and receive training in scientific procedures related to specific disciplines. Collaborative research, seminars, colloquia, conferences, and field trips will allow students to experience the science of aging in a multidisciplinary context. As the land grant university in Oregon, OSU is already equipped to deliver the practical implications of research findings to citizens through Extension specialists and field faculty. The Center would provide additional strengths in the research enterprise that underpins teaching and outreach and thus would benefit OSU and Oregon.

The science of aging is complex and involves understanding the aging person in social contexts. There are multiple bidirectional influences on mechanisms at every level, from cellular to societal. Advances in understanding aging processes, including diseases associated with aging, requires novel multidisciplinary approaches. This initiative will build on current strengths and will provide the synergy essential for interdisciplinary work in aging by adding resources and faculty in key positions. The Center will include four core areas.

  • Diet, Genes, and Aging
  • Bone Health, Exercise, and Function in Aging
  • Psychosocial Factors and Optimal Aging
  • Social and Ethical Issues in Technologies for Healthy Aging.

These core areas will involve faculty from all departments in the College of Health and Human Sciences - Design and Human Environment, Exercise and Sport Science, Nutrition and Food Management, Human Development and Family Sciences, Public Health, and Extension Family and Community Development; two units in the College of Engineering - School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Mechanical Engineering; and the Linus Pauling Institute.

At the most molecular level, researchers in the Diet, Genes, and Aging Research Core will focus on the mechanisms underlying biological aging processes to maintain and promote good health in older adults. A fundamental but under-researched aspect of aging is the inability to respond to internal and external insults - from simple bone fractures to drug interactions, chronic infections, and even "metabolic stresses". This vulnerability increases the risk of other aging-related diseases including atherosclerosis, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, stroke, congestive heart failure, kidney diseases, and carcinogenesis. As lost stress tolerance appears to be a key aspect of the basic biology of aging, researchers in this Core will focus on the mechanisms related to increased vulnerability to insults. Additionally, research on nutritive factors that can ameliorate vulnerability to stresses will potentially provide a cost-effective means to maintain "health-span".

The Bone Health, Exercise, and Function in Aging Research Core will have preventative and rehabilitative foci, investigating ways by which people develop and maintain function throughout the lifespan in order to prevent disability, such as that associated with osteoporosis. Bone health and falls prevention will continue to be areas targeted for study in this Core. Innovative studies of exercise with weighted vests has shown promise for the reduction of bone loss, decreased incidence of falling, and increased quality of life. Researchers will study mobility, balance, strength, bone density and other factors that play a role in physical functioning and fracture prevention. Behavioral approaches to increase motivation to exercise among older adults will also be studied.

Researchers in the Psychosocial Factors and Optimal Aging Core will focus on the aging individual in social contexts with an emphasis on families. There are large individual differences in the rate at which people age, with some individuals incapacitated by age 50 and others running marathons into their 80s. Understanding the sources of individual differences in lifetime pathways that produce mental and physical health outcomes will be critical to maintaining health of older populations. Research in this core will focus on stress, coping, and health; and the interface among physical, psychological, and social well-being. Researchers will seek understanding of adaptational responses to stress in individuals and families in order to optimize aging with the unique demographic and sociohistorical context in which it occurs.

Researchers in the Social and Ethical Issues in Technologies for Healthy Aging Core will examine innovations in supportive technologies to enhance living for older adults in their own homes or in residential facilities. Using human factors and engineering technology, "smart" houses can incorporate devices and computer software that allow for long-distance monitoring, establishment of behavioral "signatures" that can detect when something is amiss, and devices that have the potential to allow older adults with some cognitive and/or physical deficits to remain in their home-- postponing or perhaps preventing institutionalization. Complex issues exist with regard to privacy, autonomy, and control over monitoring, recording, and analyzing such data. Researchers in this core plan to investigate the social and ethical ramifications of health and wellness monitoring.

As the age structure in the population changes, ramifications ripple through individual lives in ways that are transformative for society. Planning for health care, living situations, family relationships, and financial resources will require increased knowledge about aging processes to better inform healthy living. Research designed to understand mechanisms underlying the widely varying outcomes in disease and disability among older adults will guide future preventive efforts and increase quality of life. This knowledge can also inform public policy so that the proper supportive environments and number and type of service providers can be planned in advance.

Few institutions in the state are planning for ways to effectively serve an aging population and yet Oregon is projected to be the state with the fourth highest proportion of older adults by 2025. With the Center for Healthy Aging Research, OSU is making an investment in the research infrastructure that will help answer questions and design programs and products relevant for this changing age distribution of households in the state, nation, and world.