FEATURE — Winter 2007


Exploring the Changing Face of Aging

From psychology to neurology, social work to geriatrics, art to engineering, prominent University faculty address issues related to an aging population. The four features that follow provide a glimpse into the breadth of exceptional research taking place at the University.

By Terri Nappier

The life span for people living in the United States and other industrialized societies has continued to rise over the last century, and researchers at Washington University have long paid attention to this trend and its associated human challenges and concerns.

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Today, across multiple departments, divisions, and schools, researchers coalesce in the University’s Center for Aging. Recently re-named the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, in recognition of Harvey and Dorismae Friedman’s support to create an environment for fruitful cross-disciplinary research, the center was born from decades of research in psychology, then medicine, and now social work, art, engineering, and architecture.

The center’s overarching mission is to empower older adults to remain healthy, active, and independent for as long as possible—a goal summarized by some as “productive aging” or “successful aging.” The center’s initiatives range from research and policy work to education and service initiatives in the community.

In the following four articles, readers are introduced to several of these initiatives, but first this introduction provides some history as to how such a burgeoning center formed at Washington University.

Aging-related research at the University began more than 50 years ago by a few biology professors in the School of Medicine. One of the major national gerontological societies—now called the Gerontologic Society of America—began with their input. Soon thereafter, though, the torch was passed to researchers in the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences.

Recognizing that the population was going to age, and that it would be useful to train junior psychologists in issues related to aging, Marion Bunch, then-chair of the psychology department, applied for and received a grant to train students in research careers. This grant was one of the first two training grants related to aging and psychology awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). From this grant grew the Aging and Development Program, which still exists today. Professors Jack Botwinick, Martha Storandt, and now David Balota have been pivotal in leading the program and grant; the department will celebrate the program’s 50 years of continuous funding in spring 2008.

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Over time, the psychology department has collaborated with faculty and students in social work, another area on the Danforth Campus with a large concentration of researchers interested in aging. Professors Nancy Morrow-Howell and Enola Proctor, for example, are two with a long-standing interest in aging. The George Warren Brown School of Social Work also has a doctoral program where a number of students have focused their research on aging, some working with faculty in psychology. Today, the School’s dean, Edward Lawlor, is an expert on aging and economics (see Washington Spirit).

At the School of Medicine, in the mid-’70s, neurologist Leonard Berg got things started. He and his neurology colleagues wanted to understand senile dementia, but initially were denied funding. The NIH recommended that Berg and his colleagues team up with the renowned aging researchers and professors in psychology, who were looking for collaborators. Berg then worked in partnership with Botwinick, and his protégé, Storandt, to receive funding that established the Memory and Aging Project. A few years later, in the early- to mid-’80s, with assistance from neurologist John Morris, Berg established the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), which continues to have an interdisciplinary focus.

Since then, the ADRC has concentrated on understanding the earliest changes of dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease. To do so, the center has had to understand what is normal as people age, so healthy older adults have participated as control participants. With Berg as the center’s first director, then subsequently Professors Eugene Johnson and Morris, it became clear that aging is much broader than cognition.

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When Berg stepped down as director and became emeritus professor in 1998, Chancellor Mark Wrighton asked him to develop a Center for Aging that would address broader issues. This was, in large part, at the instigation of Harvey Friedman, who was a pivotal force in getting the medical school to focus on aging. At that time, Wrighton noted that the University was a world-class research institution, but it did not have an organized research unit pooling all the researchers who looked at aging. Successful programs and disease centers existed, but the broader topic of aging needed exploring in collaboration.

Berg began holding meetings to discuss a new center but was unable to lead it after he suffered a massive stroke in September 1998. Morris, the Harvey A. and Dorismae Hacker Friedman Professor of Neurology, then was asked to head the Center for Aging, which officially started in 2001.

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Morris also is the director of the ADRC, which has three co-directors: David Holtzman, Alison Goate, and Johnson, all pre-eminent researchers. ADRC’s focus increasingly is to look at younger people, because the ultimate goal is to prevent dementia from ever occurring.

The Department of Neurology is not alone in looking at aging-related issues at the School of Medicine; researchers in the Program in Occupational Therapy, led by director Carolyn Baum, are helping older adults manage aging by making physical adjustments personally or through home modifications. And in the Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Science, researchers are looking at ways to care for and assist older adults. In particular, exercise physiologist John Holloszy has been a leader in discovering the degree to which exercise and nutrition relate to physical well-being over the life span, and geriatrician David Carr is researching aging as it relates to one’s ability to drive.

In the art school, Associate Professor Ken Botnick is interested in the design of communication materials across the life span, and architecture alumnus Gyo Obata is interested in living design—our roads, buildings, and furniture—for older populations.

As the University looks to the future, and to the important issues and challenges regarding an aging population, the Friedman Center for Aging is poised to build upon the success of these research initiatives and programs, as well as earlier ones, and to help these different components communicate with one another in a coordinated, unified fashion.

Terri Nappier is editor of this magazine.