Twenty years ago, if a 70-year-old man visited the emergency room after falling, he would be said to have fallen accidentally. He might have been treated for a broken bone and sent home. We’re now realizing that the things we used to blame on aging, like falling, actually have an underlying reason and a cause – an understanding that motivates everything we do at the Institute for Aging Research.
Abnormalities found in the white matter of older people’s brain scans, once brushed off as incidental, are actually significant features that are associated with the symptoms that make a person look old – a slow gait, stooped-over posture, delayed thought processes, depressed appearance. We think these brain abnormalities are related to a reduction in blood flow to the frontal lobes that can occur over the years due to a variety of physical changes, such as an inability to maintain normal blood pressure.
Falls and fractures that often occur in older adults are another major focus of our research at the Institute. Place a 35-year-old and a 75-year-old in the same situation, and the older person falls while the younger person does not. Even in older people, we call these falls accidental, but that may not be the case. Dr. Marian Hannan, Senior Scientist, Musculoskeletal Research at the Institute for Aging Reserach, is studying the role that foot disorders play in falls.
The feet are an area of the body that haven’t previously been considered as worthy of significant research, yet they’re the foundation of our bodies. It’s not enough to have a desire to look into previously unexamined areas of health and medicine. Funding is critical to every researcher’s work, and private philanthropists are often the ones who provide seed money to test new hypotheses. Every person at the Institute is working toward the day when no doctor will look at a patient and explain her symptoms by saying, “she’s just old.”
Aging may predispose us to certain conditions or symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they are dismissed without further investigation.