Thanks in part to advocacy by APA's Office on Aging, Science Policy Office and former APA Committee on Aging Chair Steven Zarit, PhD, research on the mental health issues of older populations will not be neglected this month--Older Americans Month. In February, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) re-created the Geriatric Treatment and Preventive Interventions Research Branch, which had existed for more than a decade until the early 1990s, when it was replaced by a more general Adult and Geriatric Treatment and Preventive Interventions Research Branch.
Under the new structure, the Adult and Geriatric branch split, creating two branches: the new aging branch and an adult-specific branch. While the two branches have the same focus on adult mental health, the aging branch is able to research issues as they uniquely affect older populations, says Barry Lebowitz, PhD, head of the new aging branch. For example, he says, depression can be a disabling illness in many adults, but is often fatal among older people.
Speaking on behalf of APA, Zarit was one of several representatives of aging and mental health organizations who proposed re-creating the aging-specific area during a public meeting last fall of NIMH's National Advisory Mental Health Council. APA's urging for a discrete aging branch was bolstered by an NIMH work group report--presented at the same meeting--that found that, in 2002, NIMH provided four times the grant funding ($358 million) to child research than it did to aging research ($90 million), due in part to a dearth in aging research applications.
"The work group recommended a refocusing of efforts, and we're hoping that will put NIMH in a better position" to study aging, Lebowitz says. He adds that the new branch will present psychologists with many opportunities to conduct research on an array of topics, including chronic stress, depression and brain-hormone interactions as they affect older populations.
Zarit says the renewed focus on aging-specific research will help erase the funding disparity and increase awareness of the importance of studying older populations. "Aging research didn't receive the same priority as when there was a branch," says Zarit. "And I always felt the original aging branch did a great job building the field and setting strong priorities on where they wanted to encourage aging research."