sealPurdue News

February 23, 2001

Purdue's gerontology program comes of age

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Old age isn't what it used to be, and research into the aging process promises to make growing older even better.

"We're not only trying to ease the pains associated with old age, we're working to improve the quality of life in the later years," said Kenneth Ferraro, director of Purdue University's interdisciplinary gerontology program.

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Purdue's program – now in its fifth year – offers students a graduate-level minor featuring more than 60 faculty members from 20 different departments and eight different schools. The program's interdisciplinary approach studies age-related subjects – spanning cells to society as a whole. The range of subjects includes fitness, diet, social relationships and even personal finance.

"The breadth of what we offer is rather unusual," Ferraro said. "Many programs on other campuses focus on disease. Purdue's, on the other hand, explores ways to make the most out of our later years."

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 has 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.

Demographics, in part, is driving the growing interest in understanding how people age and how to maintain health and independence in later years.

There are approximately 35 million U.S. citizens age 65 or older – a population larger than all of Canada, Ferraro noted.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, those over age 65 make up about 12.7 percent of the American population. By 2010, those numbers will increase to approximately 13.2 percent; by 2020 the over-65 population will swell to almost 17 percent.

In Japan and Germany, the projected population of seniors represents even higher percentages. The number of centenarians worldwide is expected to grow from 135,000 in 2000 to 2.2 million by 2050.

"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.

With a growing aging population, services aimed at older people are destined to grow, Ferraro said. He cites anticipated increases in the need for speech language pathologists and audiologists, biomedical scientists, genetic engineers, geriatric medicine practitioners, physical and occupational therapists and financial planners.

Purdue's program is in the final year of a $283,969, three-year Academic Reinvestment Award given by the office of the executive vice president for academic affairs. The funds were used to further the program's growth, to train and develop faculty and to expand interdisciplinary research.

"We wanted to develop the research component of our program first," Ferraro said. "We are quite pleased with our success to date. For every dollar the university invested, we brought back $13 in research grants from federal agencies and private foundations."

Nineteen faculty members have received new grants for gerontology research in the past two years. Additional applications are pending.

The gerontology program's teaching, research and outreach efforts received another boost this fall thanks to a $1 million gift from Purdue alumni Sally (Berner) and William Hanley of Omaha, Neb. The gift will help fund the Berner-Hanley Professorship in gerontology dedicated to "helping the elderly live healthier, more fulfilling lives," as Mrs. Hanley said at the time of the gift. 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, Mr. Hanley said. The Hanleys said the contribution was intended to set an example for others to give back to the university as well as bolster the gerontology program.

Mrs. Hanley is a 1961 Purdue home economics and child development graduate and William Hanley earned an industrial management degree from Purdue in 1960.

The interdisciplinary gerontology graduate minor is an excellent complement for students in any field of study related to aging or health, Ferraro said. To qualify for the gerontology program students must take courses in three different areas to help them see the aging process in a more comprehensive context, he said.

"We hope to be able to offer an undergraduate program as well, in time," Ferraro said. "This is a wonderful time for gerontology, a golden era for research on aging."

Source: Kenneth F. Ferraro, (765) 494-4707,

Writer: Grant Flora, (765) 494-2073,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Photo caption:
Purdue doctoral student Melody Phillips assesses 84-year-old Ann Warren of West Lafayette as a potential candidate for a new research study on strength training for senior women. Health, fitness and strength training are portions of the gerontology program's wide-ranging efforts to enhance quality of life and independence in later years. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at the News Service Web site and at the ftp site. Photo ID: Ferraro.gerontology

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