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NIA Extends Research on Health, Economics of Older Americans

Posted Nov 16 2009 10:04pm

Recovery Act Funds Will Enhance Long-Term Research Project

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, announced the award of four grants totaling more than $19 million over the next two years to expand the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the nation’s premier long-term study and data resource on the combined health, economic, and social factors influencing the well-being of Americans over age 50.

The awards, made possible through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, are part of the $5 billion that President Obama announced Sept. 30 on the NIH campus. They will supplement the cooperative agreement between the NIA and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which conducts the study.

“Since it began in 1992, the HRS has provided a wealth of information on the physical and economic health of older Americans,” said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “With this infusion of Recovery Act funds, we can augment the quality of the data we are collecting, expand minority participation in the study cohort and add genetic analysis to the study.”

The awards focus on data collection in four crucial areas:

  • Enroll approximately 3,000 new participants, through the addition of more than 1,000 African-American and more than 1,000 Hispanic individuals. More than doubling the current oversampling of minority adults between the ages of 51 and 61 in the study will improve the statistical power of HRS data on the sources of disparities in health and economic status.
  • Repeat collection of biomarker and psychosocial data in 2010 through face-to-face interviews with about 9,200 participants, from whom such data were first collected in 2006. This will enable researchers to analyze changes in these measures over time and link changes to other life circumstances and health events.
  • Conduct genome-wide scans of previously collected saliva samples from approximately 13,000 participants. As a result, researchers will be able to perform multiple association studies to identify potential genetic risks and influences on a broad range of health conditions as well as social and behavioral aspects of normal aging. Researchers also will be able to better understand the environmental contexts in which genetic risk and protective factors are expressed.
  • Conduct pilot research on methods for diagnosis of dementia, cognitive impairment without dementia or normal cognition for individuals in a subsample of 120 HRS participants age 70 or older. This will extend the methods of the 2001–2003 Aging, Demographics and Memory Study supplement to the HRS and set the stage for a better understanding of trends in the prevalence, causes and outcomes of dementia in the United States.

Integral to the success of the proposed expansion in the minority cohort, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has increased its longstanding support of the HRS, providing an additional $3 million of non-Recovery Act funds over the next two years. These funds provide support for the interviews of the new minority sample expansion. SSA's participation will also include linkages to pension and earnings data for these new members of the HRS, contributing to the enhancement of a valuable research data resource.

“We are gratified by the commitment of the Social Security Administration to the enlargement of the Health and Retirement Study’s minority sample,” said Richard Suzman, Ph.D., director of NIA’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research, who was instrumental in conceptualizing and starting the study. “This will allow for more in-depth analyses of minority population data, which is critically important at a time when the older population is becoming more diverse.”

Suzman also highlighted the opportunities for cutting-edge analyses that will be afforded as a result of the Recovery Act funding.

“We are excited by the potential for transforming social and behavioral science by adding genetic information to such a large, national longitudinal study,” Suzman said. “The ability to link genetic information with social, psychological and economic data should result in much deeper understanding of how we age.”

“The HRS is an outstanding partnership between government and academic research, and these new funds will create exciting new opportunities for the thousands of researchers who make use of this great resource,” said David Weir, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan and principal investigator of the HRS. “We also expect to see new additions to the more than 10,000 researchers who have already registered to use the data and the more than 1,000 authors and co-authors who have published more than 1,400 publications and dissertations. HRS’s success has become a role model for studies in over 20 countries who are now part of a remarkable international collaborative agenda of research on aging.”

The HRS, now in its 17th year, follows more than 22,000 people over the age of 50, collecting data every two years, from pre-retirement to advanced age. To keep the study fully representative of the population over age 50, the HRS regularly adds new groups to the survey sample. The study provides data about these older Americans to help address the challenges and opportunities associated with population aging in the United States. The study’s unique combination of data allows for better understanding of the nature of health and well-being in later life.

The 2007 NIA publication, “Growing Older in America: The Health and Retirement Study,” summarizes 15 years of HRS findings and is here:


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