As a newly trained attending physician, I vividly remember several patients who became extremely confused during their stay at the hospital. They were disoriented, and had problems with attention and memory. I realized that something was wrong. What was causing their confusion? They were all older adults and had been admitted for different conditions such as congestive heart failure, pulmonary disease, and cancer.
One of the defining moments of my work in aging research was learning how dramatically age affects the deterioration of the skeleton. This realization motivated me to perform research focused on understanding age effects on the skeleton. Thus I have spent my career studying the impact of low bone density and working to characterize the contributors to age-related bone loss (osteoporosis).
As we age, many of us will face a number of health-related challenges. One big concern for older adults is a decrease in muscle strength (sarcopenia) and bone loss (osteoporosis). There is evidence that up to 50% of adults may suffer muscle loss as they age and further research estimates 54 million U.S. adults have low bone density or osteoporosis. Unfortunately, an osteoporotic fracture occurs every 3 seconds according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation.
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:
There is a growing interest in cognitive training as a means to help maintain cognition in healthy adults, and perhaps slow the progression of dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease in those at risk. Given that a cure for Alzheimer’s appears years away, and with the record number of adults reaching age 65 each day, there is no surprise that that the growth of the cognitive training industry over the last decade is in the billions of dollars.
It was six years ago in 2009 that a colleague of mine had to cancel lunch with Dr. Jue Zhang, a visiting scientist from Peking University, and asked me to stand in as host. At the time I had no way of knowing how profoundly that lunch would affect the course of my career. What started as conversation between two scientists getting to know each other over Chinese food has grown into a robust and productive aging research collaboration.
More than 70% of health care dollars in this country are spent on chronic conditions. Two out of three older Americans have multiple chronic conditions, and 95% of health care spending for older adults is attributed to chronic disease. As Baby Boomers live longer than the generations that came before them, research into conditions that are common in old age – like osteoporosis, fractures, falls, dementia, and delirium – is becoming more and more critical.
We often associate the term “frail” with older adults, particularly the “oldest old,” defined as individuals 85 and older. Frailty has become a particularly important geriatric topic as the ranks of seniors continue to grow at an unprecedented rate. As someone who has devoted a career to aging research, I have focused a significant amount of my work on understanding frailty— how we define and treat it.
I have devoted my research career to advancing the understanding of a serious condition called delirium and the impact it has on clinical outcomes. As a medical resident, I observed symptoms of confusion and disorientation in many of the seniors I cared for during my hospital rotations. These symptoms were generally shrugged off as just something that sometimes happens to older patients. Little, if anything was done to prevent or treat it despite its devastating effects.