Hebrew SeniorLife’s Harvard Medical School-affiliated Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) is celebrating 50 years of research focused on finding ways to optimize quality of life for all of us as we age. For half a century our researchers have explored age-related syndromes, debunking the myth that growing old has to mean growing frail.
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:
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.
In the United States, the 65-year-old and older population is projected to double to 71.5 million by 2030 and grow to 86.7 million by 2050. These seniors will need more services than are currently available. And perhaps more important, they also bring expectations: a desire that their senior years should and can be lived to the fullest.
At Hebrew SeniorLife, we are committed to honoring the wishes of our elders. In fact, honoring and respecting our seniors is rooted in our 108-year history and in our mission.
I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, MD, MPH. In his book, Dr. Gawande, a nationally known surgeon, writer, and public health researcher, discusses end-of-life care, the many issues with traditional nursing home care in this country and the ways in which long-term care should be re-imagined.
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.