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.
Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones become weak and are more likely to break. People with osteoporosis most often break bones in the hip, spine, and wrist. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 54 million Americans have osteoporosis or low bone mass, putting them at risk for broken bones. Therefore, researchers are continuing to work towards finding strategies to improve bone health and decrease osteoporosis risk.
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.
Life is a continual balancing act. When we’re young, it may seem as though we’re able to take on everyday activities with ease. But, as we grow older, our senses and ability to efficiently perform multiple tasks at the same time start to slowly deteriorate. Even the simplest of simultaneous activities, such as walking and talking, can disrupt our balance and put us at risk for a serious fall-related injury.
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.