National survey will explore what it takes to age well in America

A database is expected to provide information on ways to help older people with daily living.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Dec. 1, 2008

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Understanding the medical care, technology and economic wherewithal it takes to age well in the U.S. is the goal of a new survey funded by the National Institute on Aging and led by Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

NIA intends to provide about $24 million over the next five years to develop and implement the survey. Still in its earliest phase, the survey aims to further understanding of how older people overcome obstacles in daily life -- whether by installing grab bars in a bathroom or by having joint replacement surgery.

The surveyors also plan to include measures related to social interactions by asking, for example, whether a person does any volunteer work.

Since nearly 40 million people in the nation are already 65 or older, and most are expected to live about 20 more years, finding ways for people to continue to function is in everyone's interest. The AMA is putting forth a major effort to guide physicians as they care for aging patients, with resources ranging from guidelines on the use of assistive technology and the safety of older drivers to dementia and assistance to caregivers.

The new survey will pick up on trends noted in the "1982-2004 National Long-Term Care Survey," which showed a major decline in disability among people 65 and older.

"Our aim is to provide scientific evidence that can help in reducing disability and improving the daily lives of older people," said the project's principal investigator Judy Kasper, PhD, professor in the Dept. of Health Policy and Management at Hopkins' School of Public Health.

Data released earlier this year by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics also show that as life expectancy increased, older people were, for the most part, enjoying better health and financial security than in the past.

The new study will try to zero in on how people are achieving these gains. "We hope that this study will play a critical role in maintaining or accelerating this trend as we address the challenges of our aging population," said Richard Suzman, PhD, director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at NIA.

Questions on the economic consequences of aging also will be asked, said Kasper. For example: "How do people pay for services when they need them for long-term disability problems?"

Evidence from earlier reports also revealed that while disabilities have been declining, gains were not as great for blacks and Hispanics or for low-income seniors as for others.

To address these disparities, the survey population will include more people from minority and low-income groups to ensure they are well-represented, said Kasper.

The first phase of the study will sign up 12,000 Medicare enrollees who will be followed annually. The enrollees will be grouped by age. As people age into older groups, researchers will bring in younger people to replace them.

The resulting database is expected to prove valuable to researchers and policymakers, said Kasper. "In addition to design and data collection, an important piece is the dissemination of data to the research community and workshops to get people interested in using the data."

It's rare to start a new national survey of this size given the current constraints on research funding, said Kasper. "The NIA deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that our existing national surveys are not designed to address the kinds of issues this survey is designed to address."

The undertaking will include investigators from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Columbia University in New York City; the Medical College of Wisconsin; the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group in Washington, D.C.; the University of Iowa; Syracuse University in New York; and the survey research firm, Westat in Maryland.

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External links

AMA on geriatric health (link)

National Long Term Care Survey (link)

Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics (link)

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