Imagine a world without age-related diseases, where we understood the complexities of aging and what constitutes “successful” aging. Greater understanding of the aging process would dispel myths, reduce disease, and lead to fuller lives.
Gerontology is a rich, diverse field with research opportunities for both students and professionals. Gerontology is generally split between two focuses: biogerontology and social gerontology. Both focuses provide unique research topics for gerontologists to study.
Because gerontology is a relatively new field, research results are just beginning to impact the field. Researchers are looking at new ways to monitor aging data, and apply it to aging discoveries. For example, researchers have studied how and when older adults fall, and have applied it to fall prevention programs. Other researchers examine aging in other species and compare it to human aging. Research is also conducted on possible treatments for age-related diseases.
Social Gerontology Research
Harvard Adult Development Study
“The Study of Adult Development,” conducted at Harvard Medical School’s Laboratory of Adult Development, has provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine aging. One of the longest age-related studies in the world, researchers have monitored two groups of men since 1939 to track their aging patterns and longevity of life.
The first group, called the Grant Group, consists of 268 Harvard graduates from 1939 through 1944. The other group, known as the Gluek Group, consists of 456 men from inner-city Boston selected for study between 1940 and 1945. Every two years, both groups complete questionnaires related to their physical and mental health, marital quality, employment or retirement, and more. Every five years, health information is collected to assess their physical health. In-depth interviews are conducted with the men through the years to document their relationships, careers, and adjustments to the aging process.
By collecting this data, the Harvard researchers wish to document what factors predict healthy aging. Through observation of the familial, childhood, and psychological variables that predict healthy life adjustments, they show what constitutes successful aging. They have also identified what variables are linked to poor physical and mental health, and poor adjustments to retirement later in life.
One specific result of the study was a greater understanding of variables that predict successful aging before age 50. The study found that the largest indicator for successful aging after 50 was the absence of alcohol and cigarette abuse. Furthermore, abuse of alcohol was linked with other factors associated with negative aging, like depression and divorce.
Subjects who did not drink or smoke had overall happier marriages and happier outlooks on life. This in turn led to greater lifespan.
Falling during older age is a common occurrence, and leads to serious injuries and even death. According to fallprevention.org, 3 in 10 adults over 70 fall each year, and 16% of all emergency room visits for adults over age 70 are for fall-related injuries.
Risk factors for an increased chance of falling include postural hypotension, also known as head rushes when suddenly standing up from a prone position; use of sedatives; use of at least four prescription medications; and an impairment in arm or leg strength or range of motion, balance, or ability to move safely from bed to chair or to the bathtub or toilet.
A National Institute on Aging funded study titled, “A Multifactorial Intervention to Reduce the Risk of Falling among Elderly People Living in the Community,” examined two groups of older adults who were at risk for falls. The groups were split between a control group and a group who received intervention training, focused training that centered on movement, balance, and strengthening exercises.
Data from the study concluded intervention training to be effective in preventing falls. Both groups included subjects who fell, but the control group fell more often, and its first fall happened sooner than subjects from the intervention group. Out of the control group, 47% experienced falls whereas only 35% of the intervention group experienced falls.
Before new programs or products are developed, gerontologists conduct research to see if the program or product will meet the needs of older adults. Typically, this research is conducted through surveys and interviews for services or products. Common survey questions might pertain to health, how they personally feel about their abilities to stay active, or what they feel is missing in their lives.
The development of products like mobility scooters and wheelchairs requires research into training education programs, and research into the mobility technology itself. The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Wheelchair Transportation Safety has a number of research projects ongoing regarding wheelchair safety. Research includes public transportation’s accessibility for wheelchairs, monitoring vehicle crashes involving passengers in wheelchairs, and improving protection in cars for wheelchair-seated drivers.
Human Aging Models
To conduct research on the effects of human aging is difficult. Primarily, the longevity of human lives makes it difficult to monitor them from start to finish. But the mortality of the researchers themselves also complicates the research process. So biogerontologists use aging models like mice, yeast, rats, fruit flies, and roundworms to learn about the aging process. These models are chosen based on their relatively quick lifespan, and fast reproduction cycles.
While the model organisms are unlike humans in many ways, causing some to question their validity, they give biochemists the closest approximation to human biology that’s available.
Scientists are looking for new model species to research aging. One underutilized species could be reptiles, according to senescence.info. Reptiles age slower than mammals and are less likely to show signs of age. Biogerontologist João Pedro de Magalhães is especially interested in aging, and using reptiles for experimental research. In “How Bioinformatics Can Help Reverse Engineer Human Aging” published in Ageing Research Review, he theorizes that perhaps reptiles contain unique genes or traits that could be replicated in mammals. Birds are another species gaining attention among biogerontologists because of their slow aging rates compared to their size.
Calorie Reduction (CR) is a controversial method of life extension that has proven beneficial in mice and other human model species. CR works by restricting the amount of calories fed to mice, while still maintaining vitamin and nutrient levels. Rodents who have undergone CR have been observed to live up to 40% longer and have less frequent incidences of age-related diseases.
CR has also been shown to extend the life of primate species. In “Mortality and Morbidity in Laboratory-maintained Rhesus monkeys and Effects of Long-term Dietary Restriction,” published in The Journal Of Gerontology, scientists observed 117 rhesus monkeys over the course of 25 years. Eight of the monkeys were on restricted diets, while 109 were fed normally.
Results from the study showed three monkeys on the restricted diet died whereas 49 monkeys from the other group died. The researchers determined a 2.6 fold increase in death occurrence for the normally fed monkeys compared to the dietary restricted ones, suggesting CR in primates to be legitimate for life extension.
The field of Gerontology also focuses its research on neurological disorders and other age-related diseases like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, arthritis, and stroke. Many treatments and methods of detecting these diseases are currently being researched, and scientists are closer than ever to finding new medical discoveries.
Much research in gerontology is aimed at Alzheimer's disease (AD), which affects an estimated 5.3 million Americans.
AD is a debilitating neurological disorder that results in severe memory loss. A patient with AD may have difficulty remembering family members or important life events. Research into the disease is ongoing, with no known causes or cures. Research is being conducted to discover the causes of the disease, including the identification of risk factors. Findings from the Alzheimer's Association show age, family history, and genetics as the main risk factors for the disease, but as more research is conducted, researchers believe that more factors will be uncovered.
New treatments for the disease are also heavily researched, including medication that targets biochemical changes in the brain. Alzheimer's prevention and caregiving are also strong focuses of research.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, 90% of what we know about AD has been discovered in the last 15 years. A new experimental brain scan for AD, the first of its kind, aims to detect plaques that form in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Correct diagnosis of AD is key to providing correct treatments, and the brain scan would provide an accurate view of developing plaques.
Parkinson's disease (PD) affects motor function, causing tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement, and postural instability. Many PD sufferers find normal tasks challenging and impossible without help from a caregiver. Buttoning a shirt, drinking a glass of water, or eating soup is more difficult for older adults with Parkinson's.
Scientists at the Parkinson's Disease Foundation (PDF) theorize that PD is a result of genetic and environmental factors. The PDF states that scientists have identified 13 genes that are associated with Parkinson’s, possibly causing the destruction of dopamine-producing brain cells - one of the hallmark signs of the disease.
Research on rodents with PD has led to the discovery of possible treatments for the disease. According to “Spinal Shocks Ease Parkinson's in Mice” in The New York Times, spinal shocks have relieved symptoms of Parkinson's in mice. The treatment involves placing small electrodes implanted in the spinal cords of mice. Three seconds after mild electrical stimulation had begun, the mice began to move normally. It's hoped that through further analysis and research, that this treatment could prove effective for humans.
Osteoarthritis is characterized by pain, swelling, and limited movement in the joints. Osteoarthritis is most common in older adults, and involves the destruction of cartilage, overgrowth of bone, spur formation, and impaired function.
Currently 21 million Americans suffer from the disease, and it is the leading cause of disability in people ages 65 and older, according to the article “Cautious Optimism for Sufferers of Joint Pain,” in The New York Times.
There is no known cure for osteoarthritis, but the New York Times article states genetics will play a large part in research for the cure.
In 2006, scientists from Brown Medical School and Rhode Island identified a gene that greatly increases the chances of osteoarthritis called matrilin-3. The gene controls bone density in adults, and gives scientists insight in understanding the underlying mechanics of osteoarthritis development in humans.
Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., and the chance of having a stroke doubles each decade after a person reaches 55, according to The Alliance for Aging Research. A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, usually by a blocked blood or burst vessel. The brain is unable to obtain oxygen or blood, and brain cells die, causing permanent damage. Since the incidence of strokes increases with age, researching the risk factors and effective stroke preventions are important topics for gerontologists.
Assessing Physical Activity in Older Adults
Gerontologists also research how physical activity has a positive effect on older adults. Unfortunately, age-related diseases and aging bodies often cause older adults to ignore exercise. However, research has found that physical activity actually helps to prevent age-related diseases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists that the loss of strength and stamina usually attributed to old age is the direct result of a lack of physical activity.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lists numerous benefits for those who obtain regular exercise, including:
- Lower overall mortality.
- Reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
- Reduced risk of colon cancer.
- Reduced risk of diabetes.
- Reduced risk of developing high blood pressure.
- Reduced risk of obesity.
- Improved mood and relief of symptoms of depression.
- Improved quality of life and improved functioning.
- Improved function in people with arthritis.
- Reduced risk of falls and injury.
According HHS, 14% of all deaths in the U.S. were attributed to insufficient physical activity and inadequate nutrition. The organization recommends that older adults get 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week.
Career Options in Gerontology
To work as researcher in gerontology, at least a master’s degree is required. Most research positions require at least a PhD. Many interested in researching gerontology work for either government organizations, or universities where they combine teaching, researching, and publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals.
To learn more about becoming a research gerontologist, request information from some schools offering degree programs in gerontology.