Oct. 21 2015

Resiliency Research Is Changing the Way We Think About Aging

Dean Linda P. Fried Points to Opportunities for Older Americans to Optimize Their Experiences and Knowledge

Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried was an invited speaker at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Medicine on Monday, October 19, sharing her expertise during a full day of scientific exploration organized under the title, “Aging: Complexities, Opportunities, and Impacts on Society.” Along with other influential scientists, Dean Fried offered insights about frailty and resilience, a newly understood syndrome that may hold the key to disease prevention at any age.

The Academy selected aging for its annual meeting to recognize the challenges and opportunities facing society as one result of longer lifespans. In 2013, people aged 65 and older represented 14 percent of the U.S. population. By 2030, that figure is expected to climb to 22 percent. Americans 85 and older are projected to nearly triple from 6 million in 2013 to 15 million in 2040. Because of this, conference-goers emphasized, public health must advocate for changes to how we think about growing older, moving away from a pathological view of aging to a scientific basis for a life-course approach that embraces the potential for older Americans to take full advantage their experience and knowledge on behalf of younger generations.

On the Academy’s afternoon panel, “Aging, Cognition, and Frailty,” Dean Fried asserted that public health gains over the past century have resulted in significant opportunities to optimize longer lifespans now. Citing the thinking of Robert N. Butler, the world-renowned gerontologist and psychiatrist, Dean Fried argued that the major health outcomes of old age are frailty and cognitive decline.

“If you think of frailty as a syndrome,” she asked the audience, “what you have in mind is a constellation of diagnosable, recognizable factors—muscle weakness, slowness, cutting back on activity, low energy, exhaustion, and, eventually, weight-loss.”

Arguing that medical research has focused primarily on a disease model, Dean Fried contended that the lifeforce that sustains us has until recently been underexplored. What many scientists, including Ursula Staudinger, director of the Columbia Aging Center, defines as “positive plasticity,” can be seen as the converse of frailty. Dean Fried described the Center researchers’ scientific contributions, which have led to understanding of the biological dynamics of resilience and homeostatic capacity, offering new opportunities for prevention and treatment.

The entire National Academy of Medicine meeting can be viewed here.