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Prologue: Research on the Demography and Economics of Aging

From: Demography
Volume 47, Supplement, 2010
pp. S1-S4 | 10.1353/dem.2010.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It is estimated that within the next decade and for the first time in history, there will be more people over age 65 than under age 5 (United Nations 2009). In anticipation of this perhaps symbolic demographic watershed, this special issue of Demography provides an outstanding overview of many of the advances and accomplishments of the past several years as well as a description of some of the current research frontiers.

The RAND Summer Institute, started more than 16 years ago, was created to fill a number of serious gaps in the field of population aging. In addition, in the early 1990s and with cooperation from Wendy Baldwin at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Behavioral and Social Research program (BSR) created a number of centers and training programs for the demography of aging. At that time, each center and training program was so small and specialized that students and faculty at the various institutions were exposed to only fragments of the research field; there was clearly a need for greater integration of the many perspectives and traditions.

The same set of concerns applied to the BSR at the National Institute of Aging (NIA). Some forum, akin to the Gordon Conferences in biology and related fields, was needed to bring together the players in the fields of demography and the economics of aging. The initial focus was on providing faculty and students with the kinds of overviews that appear in annual review compilations, coupled with current research. This endeavor has succeeded far beyond our initial expectations, and significant appreciation is due to RAND and the Demography and Economics of Aging Centers.

The 15th Anniversary Conference special issue provides an occasion to review progress in the field since the 10th anniversary, as well as a chance to consider future directions. Six years ago, in "Research on Population Aging at NIA: Retrospect and Prospect," I traced some of the history of population aging within the Behavioral and Social Research Program and speculated on its future (Suzman 2004). The epilogue discussed the influence of organizational structures, individuals, scientific currents in the disciplines, and perhaps lucky happenstance.

Throughout the history of the population program in BSR, there has been a constant interplay between BSR staff and members of the scientific community to help chart BSR's future. In some notable cases, this endeavor was assisted by efforts made by the Population Association of America. This fertile set of interchanges has continued. The basic two-branch (population- and individual-level) organizational structure of the BSR division (formerly a program) did not change, except that the boundaries between the branches became noticeably more fluid and permeable as psychology, cognitive science, and genetics became more incorporated into demography and economics. For example, psychologists in the individual branches led initiatives in behavioral economics and neuroeconomics and were also at the forefront of helping to integrate genetics into our longitudinal studies.

It has been advantageous to BSR that its recent organizational structure and culture has encouraged fluid and dynamic interdisciplinary interactions. As central National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, in what was initially called the Roadmap and is now known as the Common Fund, increased, several new NIH-wide initiatives were started in BSR and were [End Page S1] led by BSR staff. These include the Science of Behavior Change (http://commonfund.nih.gov/behaviorchange), Health Economics relevant to health care reform (http://commonfund.nih.gov/healtheconomics), and large behavioral economics components in the stimulus-funded comparative effectiveness initiative at NIH and at the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.

In 2007, some 20 years after a seminal report by a committee chaired by James Smith on data needs in the area of health and retirement, a second committee, chaired by Lisa Berkman and James Smith and organized by John Haaga, considered the data priorities for behavioral and social research on aging. Several of the recommendations relate to the articles in this special issue. Among the recommendations of the report were that (1) NIA/ BSR should enhance efforts to understand the life course and the role of cumulative exposures on late-life outcomes; and (2) it should consider starting data collection at early ages...



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