Gerontology studies grow with aging population
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. As America grows older, universities across the country are responding by creating programs to study the aging process.
"More than 1,000 gerontology programs now exist, and about 200 of them offer graduate-level studies," said Kenneth Ferraro, director of Purdue University's interdisciplinary gerontology program.
Gerontology research funding reflects growing interest from special interest groups, as well as federal agencies such as the National Institute on Aging. Both funding and the number of research project grants have grown since the institute's inception in 1976. NIA funding has grown from $19.2 million to $685.6 million in the past 25 years. The number of research project grants have grown from 114 to 1,190 in the same period.
The agency's budget request is $722 million, up almost $38 million for this fiscal year.
Groups like the NIA favor programs that take an interdisciplinary approach, Ferraro said.
"The study of aging is more than the study of diseases, such as Alzheimer's," he said. "Because of the advances in healthcare, in fact, many people will remain healthy well into their later years. We need to focus on them as well."
Gerontology, he said, should be a blended study of age-related subjects from cells to societies.
"We need to take a holistic approach and look at fitness, diet, genetics, social relationships and even personal finance," Ferraro said. "These all are pieces of the puzzle and need to be looked at together."
Purdue's program encompasses the teaching and research of 60 faculty members from 20 departments such as biology, psychology, sociology, consumer and family sciences, health education, nutrition, pharmacy, nursing and veterinary medicine.
Demographics, in part, is driving the growing interest in understanding how people age and how to maintain health and independence in later years.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports there are approximately 35 million U.S. citizens age 65 or older a population larger than all of Canada. Those seniors make up about 12.7 percent of the American population. By 2010, those numbers will increase to approximately 13.2 percent; by 2020 the 65 and older population will swell to almost 17 percent.
In Japan and Germany, the projected senior population represents even higher percentages. The number of centenarians worldwide is expected to grow from 135,000 to 2.2 million in the next 50 years.
"If you want a picture of the age distribution of the United States in 2020, just look at Florida's demographics. Its 65 and older population is already more than 18 percent," Ferraro said.
These demographic growth trends have educational and economic implications. Services aimed at older people and their long-term well-being appear destined to grow. Ferraro said he anticipates increases in the need for speech language pathologists and audiologists, biomedical scientists, genetic engineers, geriatric medicine practitioners, physical and occupational therapists and financial planners .
While some gerontology programs began in the 1960s, others are just coming of age as scientific and social interest in the field grows.
Purdue's program began five years ago. This fall, alumni added their support.
Sally and William Hanley from Omaha, Neb., gave $1 million to endow a professorship in gerontology at Purdue. The gift was given in conjunction with a three-year campaign to raise $10 million for the School of Consumer and Family Sciences.
Mrs. Hanley's affinity for older people and her work on their behalf as a Meals on Wheels volunteer as both a driver and coordinator inspired the gift to Purdue.
"My mother is 91, and I do a lot of work with the elderly. I feel we should do whatever we can to make a better life for them," she said. "We'd like this gift to teach others about how to help the elderly live healthier and more fulfilling lives, and, hopefully, inspire others to give."
Demographics, public and academic interest, research dollars and alumni support all point to gerontology as a field of study whose time has come, Ferraro said.
"This is a wonderful time for gerontology a golden era for research on aging," he said.
Source: Kenneth F. Ferraro, (765) 494-4707, email@example.com
Writer: Grant Flora, (765) 494-2073, firstname.lastname@example.org
Vicky Cahan, senior public affairs specialist, National Institutes of Health, parent organization of the National Institute on Aging, (301) 496-1752