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Perspective: ‘Silver Wave’ rising

Supporting national readiness for the impacts of a geriatric population

Perspective: ‘Silver Wave’ rising

A silver wave is coming.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2035 adults over age 65 will outnumber children under age 18 for the first time in history. This group of older adults is living longer, and their longevity will necessitate preparing for gerontological issues—health, societal, infrastructure, financial and other impacts—that will result. ORAU is working to address this.

Aging and Health

“Research on the connections between aging and chronic disease has accelerated rapidly in recent years,” said Jeffrey Miller, Ph.D., ORAU senior scientist for health, energy and environment. “The interdisciplinary field of geroscience examines the relationship between aging and age-related disorders.” Miller chairs ORAU’s Geroscience Working Group, a multi-disciplinary team established to identify and leverage the company’s subject matter expertise to support gerontology-related programs and research.

ORAU experts like Adayabalam Balajee, Ph.D., director of the ORISE Cytogenetic Biodosimetry Laboratory, has extensive experience on gerontological research and has published several peer-reviewed papers on human premature aging syndromes. 

“During my time at the National Institute on Aging [at the National Institutes of Health], we were the first to demonstrate that ribonucleic acid polymerase II transcription deficiency (which causes DNA damage) is one of the underlying molecular causes for aging and age-related diseases,” said Balajee. Other ORAU researchers have studied the relationship between exposure to air pollution and the development of Parkinson’s disease and examined skeletal issues related to aging, like osteopenia and osteoporosis.

As the body of geroscience research grows, epidemiological and exposure health studies may be needed to gain insights into the overall health of the aging population. ORAU has decades of experience and a team of epidemiologists, biostatisticians, health physicists, industrial hygienists and toxicologists with comprehensive expertise in this area. Their work includes study design, data capture and historical document retrieval, data exploration and management, and health data analytics.  

Phil Posner, Ph.D., ORAU scientific advisor, is looking at health care for older adults. Posner has served on the advisory board of the Patient Priority Care (PPC) Project. Funded by Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), the Hartford Foundation and other co-sponsors through Yale and NYU, the PPC Project seeks to develop best practices for the care of older individuals with complex chronic conditions. He currently is an advisor with the Health Care Systems Research Network (HCSRN) with the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Centers (OAIC) to create a national resource to nurture and advance an interdisciplinary research agenda focused on older adults with multiple chronic conditions (MCCs). 

“Research definitely indicates that as people age, they have better health and well-being outcomes when they have the ability to maintain control or be able to affect the decisions around their life. That’s better for the community as a whole, not just for the individual.”

Ashley Golden, Ph.D., biostatistician

Societal Issues and Aging Populations

Opioid Use Disorder

Much of the news about opioid use disorder (OUD) focuses on young adults. However, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Medicare beneficiaries (65 and older) are the fastest growing population with diagnosed OUD. Additionally, the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren is on the rise because of OUD of the parents.

Jennifer Reynolds, MPH, CHES, section manager for health communication, marketing and training, has worked extensively on opioid abuse in rural communities on behalf of CDC, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and university partners. This work is helping local communities to address barriers to OUD treatment seeking behavior, build capacity to more effectively educate affected populations, and identify and promote best practices, including those supporting grandparents raising children impacted by their parents’ OUD. 

Susceptibility to Fake News

Research suggests that older adults are almost four times more likely to share fake news on social media than younger people. According to the journal, Science Advances, older adults were responsible for spreading much more misinformation during the last presidential campaign than those under age 65.

ORAU and Penn State University are researching whether a machine can accurately predict if a social media user is gullible to “fake news.” In an era when distrust of most institutions is at an all-time high, this is an important question. Funded through the ORAU-Directed Research and Development Program, researchers collected a set of known fake news items that have been verified by crowdsourcing, traced how such misinformation was propagated on Twitter or Facebook, and identified the users who have shared known misinformation at least once.

While the project does not focus on the age of users, Tiffani Conner, Ph.D., a social scientist working on this research, said it makes sense that people over age 65 may be more susceptible to fake news.

“This is an age group that was raised in an era when the nightly news and daily newspapers were the solely trusted sources of information,” she said. “Now that the world has changed, they may not have the digital literacy to discern the difference between what’s real [news] and what isn’t.” More research is needed on this issue. 

Infrastructure and Aging

Preparedness for at-risk populations

ORAU has more than three decades of experience supporting preparedness at the local, state and national levels, and has seen especially effective results when preparedness happens at the community level. Certain populations, including older adults, may need assistance during an emergency that requires evacuation. Preparedness should include special planning for these populations, whose needs may not be met by the standard emergency resources.

ORAU has worked with the Arkansas Department of Health, Preparedness and Emergency Response Branch, and Arkansas State University Regional Center for Disaster Preparedness Education to develop a series of five workshops focused on emergency operations planning for populations at risk and increasing community resilience.

“These workshops really set the stage for helping us enhance the ability of communities to meet the needs of “at-risk” populations during an emergency,” said Freddy Gray, MPH, MCHES, director of health communication and preparedness programs. “Preparedness and appropriate communication are very important in meeting the needs of these populations.”

Smart Cities/Age-Friendly Cities

ORAU’s 75th Annual Meeting of the Council of Sponsoring Institutions will focus on “Smart Cities and Communities.”  A smart city designation means that a wide variety of digital and electronic technologies have been applied to a city and its communities to improve quality of life, foster innovation and enhance knowledge.

Experts will also address how technology is helping make cities and communities age-friendly, where every individual in a community to reach his or her full potential regardless of their age. This may include aging in place—whether at home or in a specialized community or facility— transportation, communication and more.

“Research definitely indicates that as people age, they have better health and well-being outcomes when they have the ability to maintain control or be able to affect the decisions around their life,” said Ashley Golden, Ph.D., biostatistician. “That’s better for the community as a whole, not just for the individual. 

ORAU is well positioned to help the nation meet the challenges of the coming “silver wave.” As our nation’s – and the world’s – population continues to age, more research will be conducted into their health and well-being, chronic and catastrophic diseases, societal and resource impacts, and infrastructure needs. More research at federal institutions will require more researchers.

“Geroscience fits perfectly with our mission to advance national priorities and serve the public interest by integrating academic, government and scientific resources,” said Miller. “We are ready to further the work and research necessary to address the needs of our aging nation.”