Psychology Is Central at National Institute on Aging

As the proportion of adults over 65 years old continues to grow, issues of aging have become increasingly important in the United States in such diverse areas as employment, health care, and social services.

Psychological research is playing a central role in addressing such age-related concerns of individuals and the nation as a whole. Consider the significant presence of psychologists at the National Institute on Aging (NIA; the nation’s leading government agency devoted to research on adult development and aging), where three out of five associate directors have doctoral degrees in psychology and, in 1996 alone, psychologists were the principal investigators (PIs) on research grants totaling about $50 million.

While these facts illustrate the integral nature of behavioral science to the science of aging and speak to psychology’s influence on the Institute, to fully appreciate the level and diversity of psychology’s contribution to the NIA mission see the list beginning on page 3 of the 157 extramural psychologist grantees who received supportinFYl996. Though the overwhelming majority of the NIA’ s support of psychological research is devoted to basic science (i.e., understanding the mechanisms of aging), a significant number of projects are applied or intervention-oriented. Even in these projects, however, relevance to elucidating basic psychological processes of aging is emphasized. NIA Director Richard Hodes provides several examples in this month’s “Presidential Column” for which he is the guest contributor (see page 2).

NIA also supported the development of the report “Vitality for Life: Psychological Research for Productive Aging,” which identifies basic and applied research priorities in the psychology of aging. One of a series of research agendas developed under the Human Capital Initiative, “Vitality for Life” focuses on health and behavior, functioning of the oldest old, productivity of older workers, and issues related to mental health and well-being of older individuals. This report also received recognition from Congress, which strongly urged NIA to use it in determining future directions in research.

Interacting Processes

Since NIA was established by Congress in 1974, behavioral and social science research has been a key component of NIA’s mission, reflecting the view that aging is not merely a biological process but rather an interaction of psychological, social and biological processes.

This view is reflected in the breadth of topics supported by NIA: neuropsychological investigations of age-related changes brain structures and their relation to normal and pathological psychological functioning; cohort and individual changes in cognitive function in later life; social influences on behavior; attitudes and beliefs and their role in the health behaviors of older people; formation and maintenance of social ties; and intervention studies to apply behavioral research to improving the functioning.

Extramural psychological research is primarily funded by two NIA programs. The Behavioral and Social Research (BSR) Program is comprised of three branches, two of which support psychological research: Adult Psychological Development and Social Science Research on Aging. The Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging (NNA) Program has two branches relevant to psychology: Neuropsychology of Aging and Dementias of Aging.

Psychological research programs located in BSR and NNA are described in an accompanying box on the next page. In addition, two other extramural programs, Geriatrics Research and the Biology of Aging, support a few behavioral science projects.

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