Before we look ahead, I think it’s important to see where things began for aging research at Hebrew SeniorLife. Since 1965 the Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) has been at the forefront of geriatric research to improve the quality of life for seniors. IFAR research has contributed to some of the most important innovations in senior care:
- Establishment of supportive housing—Hebrew SeniorLife facilities—as an alternative to nursing facilities
- Creation of the Minimum Data Set—a legal requirement for all U.S. nursing homes—that aids nursing home staff in gathering a resident’s health, needs and strengths information
- Identification of measures to prevent falls—the largest preventable cause of death among older adults—including medication adjustments, high blood pressure treatment, weight-lifting exercises and Tai Chi. We have shown that aging is not an inevitable decline and deterioration, and that many conditions once thought to be due to aging are, in fact, preventable or reversible through better diet, exercise, and other interventions
In the next 50 years there will be many important discoveries that will further improve the quality of daily living, and ultimately extend life for older adults. Two key areas that I believe offer great potential to the quality of life and longevity of seniors is genetics and engineering.
The application of genetics to geriatric research, or geriomics as we call it, has huge potential to significantly impact the lives of seniors. One area in particular is personalized medicine. How does the genetic composition of an individual interact with the medication they take? If we are able to answer this question, we will be able to create customized treatments specific to the individual. With personalized medical therapy for older adults we can eliminate potential adverse reactions such as falls, cognitive issues, or even death.
Engineering is another area that could have an enormous effect on aging research. While we know a lot about the challenges that older adults confront, we don’t know much about available technology. Engineers have developed wonderful technologies that need an application. If we work together—clinicians, researchers, and engineers—there is a great potential for producing applications that aid older adults.
And we have already begun to explore opportunities by partnering with engineers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. A recent collaboration between IFAR and Wyss resulted in a device that may eventually prevent falls in older adults. The device, a vibrating insole, has been shown to improve balance and gait, but requires more work before it can be made available to patients. This collaborative effort could one day improve balance and prevent falls in older individuals, as well as those with diseases that cause instability including diabetes and stroke.
The genetics revolution, along with the convergence of engineering and medicine, will enhance our research capabilities in the coming decades. Will we slow aging? Will we prevent disease? Will we solve the mysteries of the aging brain? While I can only speculate what will happen in the next 50 years of aging research, I can say with certainty that older adults will be living better and longer than ever before.