Dr. Bruce Troen doesn’t want to just increase senior citizens’ life spans. He also wants to increase what he calls their “health spans.”
“It’s not about the years in your life, but it’s really the life in your years,” he said.
Troen and the University at Buffalo’s Center for Successful Aging will be in a better position to do just that thanks to a recent five-year, $750,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging. UB will match the funds for a total of $1.5 million.
The National Institute on Aging, a division of the federal government's National Institutes of Health, awarded Troen’s proposal for the Academic Leadership Career Award the highest possible score.
“It’s very gratifying,” Troen said, speaking from his office located several floors above the Gates Vascular Institute on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. “Of course, now the hard work really begins where we can hopefully translate that praise and the funding into tangible outcomes.”
The grant will allow Troen — the center’s director as well as chief of UB’s Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Care — to dedicate more time to bolstering the center’s programs and research.
This currently includes reducing unnecessary and harmful prescribing practices; assessing muscle mass and frailty through urine tests; and even using voice command devices to combat loneliness in older adults.
Troen and a colleague from the center are also working on a pilot study to see if short sessions of high-intensity fitness training can help older veterans, after the regimen was previously successful with older mice. The project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The National Institute on Aging grant particularly focuses on geroscience. While geriatrics is the care of older adults and their chronic diseases, geroscience seeks to better understand and link the processes of aging to chronic diseases.
“Because if we can understand the mechanisms of disease and understand the mechanisms of aging, because normal aging predisposes to the susceptibility of diseases as we get older, then hopefully we can develop strategies and therapies to enhance our older population,” Troen said.
He believes this effort couldn’t be more timely.
Western New York has an aging population. Although 15% of the U.S. population is 65 and over, 18% of Erie County residents are 65 and over, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Twenty percent of the U.S. will be 65 and over in 2030, but Erie County is projected to reach that number by 2025.
“So we have a silver tsunami that is already crashing on our shores,” said Troen, adding this will mean a higher percentage of the local population dealing with issues like frailty and dementia.
Despite this, there’s actually a shortage of geriatricians in the U.S. The American Geriatrics Society predicts there will be roughly 6,000 full-time geriatricians in 2025, but there will be a need for more than 33,000. Plus, fewer than half of all geriatric fellowship positions across the country were filled last year, according to the National Resident Matching Program.
Luckily, the UB Center for Successful Aging’s grant will also fund recruiting and mentoring trainees and junior faculty in the field, as well as developing geroscience curriculum.
Troen believes investing in geriatricians and geriatric and geroscience research now will only save costs in the future. For example, he notes a delirium prevention program at UPMC Shadyside in Pittsburgh that saves the hospital about $7 million a year.
Troen, who is also a physician-investigator with the Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System and director of geriatrics services at Erie County Medical Center, believes it will take a holistic approach to care for the area’s aging population.
That’s why the UB Center for Successful Aging steering committee includes faculty specializing in not only medicine and nursing, but also engineering, architecture, law and social work.
“We want to recognize that it takes more than just focusing on the heart or the lungs or the kidneys,” he said, “so that we can really enhance quality of life as we get older.”
The ultimate hope is the grant will lay a foundation for the center to attract more funding, making the center a sustainable effort that could directly care of older adults and be a national leader in geriatrics and geroscience.
“My vision would be: How can Buffalo become the best place for people to grow old and retire?” Troen said. “We often tend to think about, ‘Well, if we retire, we move to Florida, we move to Arizona.’ Not all of us can do that, but we can — with the right community engagement and systems and innovation — make even Buffalo a place where older adults can thrive.”