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Research Review

NIH-Supported Survey to Study Functional Change in Older Adults
Thousands of Medicare beneficiaries will receive an invitation in May to be part of a special study looking at the impact of age-related changes on functional ability. The National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS) will be seeking some 9,000 people aged 65 and older to participate in this long-term study, funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

NHATS will examine how the daily lives of older adults change as they age. This research will help scientists understand the social and economic consequences of late-life disability for individuals, families, and society. NHATS will complement and extend the findings of the National Long-Term Care Survey, a study supported by NIA from 1987-2006, which found that the level of disability among older people declined significantly between 1982 and 2004/2005.

"Many factors affect an older person's ability to function effectively and live independently," says NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, MD. "NHATS is designed to help us understand the contributions of these factors to trends in the prevalence, onset and recovery from functional limitations."

As they age, many people experience problems in caring for themselves. These limitations are typically measured by the need for help in activities of daily living such as walking, dressing, and getting into and out of bed. Instrumental activities of daily living, such as preparing a hot meal, making telephone calls, and managing money, are associated with the ability to live independently. NHATS will measure participants' abilities to perform these activities and ask them about their need for assistance in carrying out these tasks. Changes in living arrangements, medical and healthcare needs, and individual well-being also will be measured during the study.

"The recently observed trend toward decreasing rates of disability identified by the National Long Term Care Survey and other national surveys may have leveled off, and this has serious implications," says Richard Suzman, PhD, director of NIA's division of behavioral and social research. "Inability to live independently will add to costs for long-term care and nursing home stays, and reduce well-being among older people. This poses additional challenges for the aging of the baby boom. It's critical to track the trend and understand its dynamics."

NHATS will develop a nationally representative sample of Americans aged 65 and older, selected at random from Medicare enrollees. Study participants will be interviewed in person in 2011 for the baseline sample and then once a year. Researchers will also conduct short tests of function and physical performance.

— Source: National Institutes of Health