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Summary Article: National Institute On Aging
from Encyclopedia of Health and Aging

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), works to increase understanding of the nature and implications of aging and to extend the healthy active years of life. The NIA was established in 1974 after the White House Conference on Aging recommended its creation and Congress authorized, through Public Law 93-296, formation of NIA to provide leadership in aging research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs relevant to aging and older adults.

Subsequent amendments to the legislation designated the NIA as the primary federal government agency for Alzheimer’s disease research.

The NIA’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of older Americans through research and specifically to do the following:

  • Support and conduct high-quality research on aging processes, age-related diseases, and special problems and needs of the aged

  • Train and develop highly skilled research scientists from all population groups

  • Develop and maintain state-of-the-art resources to accelerate research progress

  • Disseminate information and communicate with the public and interested groups on health and research advances and on new directions for research

NIA Research Programs

The NIA sponsors aging-related research through its extramural and intramural programs. The extramural program funds research and training at universities and other research centers throughout the United States and abroad. The intramural program conducts laboratory and clinical research at facilities in Baltimore and Bethesda, Maryland. Within these programs, NIA scientists and those supported by NIA grants and contracts are exploring everything from cell function to social interaction, with major focuses on the biology of aging, reducing disease and disability, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive changes, and the behavioral and social aspects of aging. During recent years, the NIA also has increasingly promoted the study of sex and racial/ethnic disparities in health, developed strategies to include more minorities in research, and encouraged the training of more minority scientists.

Extramural Research

Approximately 80% of the NIA’s funding is disbursed through extramural awards made to universities, medical centers, and other public and private research organizations. The NIA’s extramural program encompasses four major areas of emphasis: the biology of aging, behavioral and social research, neuroscience and neuropsychology of aging, and geriatrics and clinical gerontology.

The Biology of Aging Program supports research to enhance and extend the health of older people through studies of the basic biological processes associated with aging. Research within this program examines many of the fundamental mechanisms of aging—in genes, in the biochemistry of cells, and in critical organs of the body. This work includes studying the gradual or biologically programmed alterations of structure and function that characterize normal aging as well as changes that are risk factors for, or accompany, age-related disease states. For example, NIA-funded scientists are using animal models and organisms such as fruit flies and yeast to learn about the genetics of longevity and disease.

The Behavioral and Social Research Program looks at how people change during the adult life span, the interrelationships between older people and social institutions, and the societal impact of the aging population. Research within this program examines diverse concerns such as health disparities; psychological development; cognitive functioning; reducing disability; behavior change interventions; genetics, behavior, and the social environment; and the burden of illness and the efficiency of health systems. A major program initiative, the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), is one of the most extensive surveys on health and retirement ever conducted in the United States. Every 2 years since 1992, HRS researchers have surveyed 22,000 people over 50 years of age to paint a comprehensive picture of older Americans’ health and disability status, work and retirement circumstances, income and wealth, and other aspects of aging.

The Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program fosters research and training to better understand the neural and behavioral processes associated with the aging brain. This program focuses on the neurobiology, neuropsychology, and dementias of aging, with the overall goal of elucidating how normal and pathological aging affect the central nervous system and behavior. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research is a priority within the Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program. In this arena, the NIA supports and coordinates more than 30 Alzheimer’s Disease Centers (ADCs) at major medical institutions nationwide. Within these centers, investigators clinically evaluate people with AD, conduct systematic research with that population, and offer patient education. The NIA also supports the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, through which academic medical centers conduct collaborative clinical trials studying drugs to manage, treat, and prevent AD symptoms. In addition, NIA funding encourages drug discovery initiatives and supports a national repository of blood samples from people with AD and their families that are used to study genetic defects associated with the disease.

The Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology Program supports research on both health and disease in older adults and research on aging during the life span. Research within this program focuses on topics such as falls and frailty, the effects of physical activity on disease and disability, aging-related pathological changes, and clinical issues during the life span. The program also plans and administers clinical studies testing interventions designed to address problems associated with disability, concurrent use of multiple drugs, menopause, and other concerns.

Within the extramural program, the Office of Extramural Affairs organizes the work of the National Advisory Council on Aging (NACA), which was created by Congress in 1975 to advise on programmatic and policy matters related to the NIA’s mission. The 18-member NACA also keeps NIA staff apprised of the research community’s opinions and scientific concerns and informs the scientific community, Congress, and the public about the NIA’s activities.

In addition, the Office of Extramural Affairs manages peer review of all extramural applications—a process ensuring that NIA-funded research is of the highest quality and serves the health needs of the nation—and coordinates the NIA’s research training and career development activities. Grant applications are first reviewed by either an NIH Center for Scientific Review group or an NIA review committee, and then they are reviewed by panels of scientific experts, including NIH grantees. The review panels assess the quality and originality of the proposed science, the investigators’ qualifications, the quality of the proposed research facilities, the treatment of any animals to be used, and (for research involving humans) proposed plans for recruiting women and minorities into the studies. Qualified applications for amounts exceeding $50,000 must then receive NACA approval to be eligible for funding.

Intramural Research

The NIA’s intramural program seeks to uncover new knowledge about age-related pathological changes and people’s ability to adapt to environmental stress. This knowledge helps scientists to understand changes associated with healthy aging and age-related diseases, to define criteria for evaluating when a change is linked to disease, and to explore the development of new treatment strategies. Through both laboratory and clinical research, the NIA’s multidisciplinary intramural scientists study age-related diseases, including AD, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and cancer.

The NIA intramural research program is composed of 11 scientific laboratories, 2 scientific sections, a Clinical Research Branch, and a Research Resources Branch. The research team includes experts in scientific disciplines such as biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, structural biology, genetics, behavioral sciences, epidemiology, statistics, and clinical research as well as in medical disciplines such as neurobiology, immunology, endocrinology, cardiology, rheumatology, hematology, oncology, and geriatrics. The program also offers scientists laboratory and clinical medicine training opportunities within these disciplines.

The intramural program’s state-of-the-art laboratories are located at the Gerontology Research Center in Baltimore and on the NIH campus or offsite in Bethesda. Researchers working within these labs investigate a wide range of topics such as the biological processes of aging, cardiac function, interventions to slow aging processes, genetic determinants of aging, immune function, the epidemiology of aging, and personality and cognition. Many of the intramural studies involve collaborations with other scientists within the NIA and NIH or at other research centers.

The intramural program’s Clinical Research Branch conducts longitudinal studies of aging and interventional clinical trials, with a focus on cardiology, neurology, endocrinology, and oncology. Ongoing projects include two major studies: the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) and the Healthy Aging in Neighborhoods of Diversity Across the Life Span (HANDLS) study.

Also within the intramural program, the Research Resources Branch offers the NIA’s intramural scientists specialized laboratory and instrumentation expertise, animals for use in research, and other biomedical research resources and support.

Information Dissemination and Public Outreach

Complementing its scientific programs, the NIA disseminates information about aging-related topics and research to the public and professionals. This mission is accomplished through two clearinghouses: the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center and the NIA Information Center (NIAIC).

The ADEAR Center answers questions, disseminates materials about AD, offers referrals to local supportive services and ADCs, and provides clinical trial information and literature searches. The NIAIC disseminates NIA publications and other materials and also participates in a variety of outreach programs. Both centers offer services and materials in English and Spanish through their websites and toll-free information lines as well as by e-mail, snail mail, and fax. All materials developed by these centers are researched carefully and reviewed thoroughly by NIA scientists and health communicators to ensure scientific accuracy and audience appropriateness.

In addition, the NIA disseminates health information to consumers through NIHSeniorHealth.gov, a “senior-friendly” website developed and maintained by the NIA and the National Library of Medicine, also part of the NIH. This award-winning resource offers reliable information on dozens of aging-related topics, ranging from AD and arthritis to shingles and sleep.

    See also
  • Government Health Surveys; Health and Retirement Study

Further Readings and References
  • National Institute on Aging. About NIA. Available at: www.nia.nih.gov/AboutNIA. Accessed September 24, 2006.
  • National Institute on Aging. Aging Under the Microscope: A Biological Quest. Bethesda, Md: NIA; 2002. NIH Publication No. 02-2756. Available at: www.niapublications.org/pubs/microscope/index.asp. Accessed September 24, 2006.
  • National Institute on Aging. NIA’s Portfolio for Progress. Bethesda, Md: NIA; 2001. NIA Publication No. 02-4995. Available at: www.niapublications.org/pubs/portfolio/html/index.asp. Accessed September 24, 2006.
  • National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Aging. Available at: www.nih.gov/about/almanac/organization/NIA.htm. Accessed September 24, 2006.
  • Jack M. Guralnik
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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