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Priority Areas for Research Training (T32, F and K)

The Behavioral and Social Research (BSR) Program at the National Institute on Aging has identified the interdisciplinary fields described below which require increased numbers of trained investigators in order for research on behavioral and social aspects of aging to be accelerated.  Interdisciplinary research, a characteristic of the BSR Program, integrates the analytical strengths of two or more often disparate scientific disciplines to create a new hybrid discipline. By engaging seemingly unrelated disciplines, traditional gaps in terminology, approach, and methodology might be gradually eliminated. With roadblocks to potential collaboration removed, a true meeting of minds can take place: one that broadens the scope of investigation into research problems, yields fresh and possibly unexpected insights, and gives rise to new interdisciplines that are more analytically sophisticated.


The National Academy of Sciences report Between Zeus and the Salmon: The Biodemography of Longevity (NAS, 1997) described the new field of biodemography which integrates biological and demographic inquiry and methods to address questions on aging, survival and life span at the level of the whole organism.   Biodemography draws from population biology and thus emphasizes evolutionary and ecological concepts, life history theory and comparative methods.  The types of questions being asked by researchers include: how is life span, as a life history trait, shaped by evolution; how can evolutionary theories of aging and mortality be tested by experimental methods; how can mathematical demographic models of aging be informed by evolutionary theory and by observed demographic experiences of field populations in the wild; and what is the co-evolutionary relationship between sociality and life span.  Also, advances in genetics, genomics and findings of population variation resulting from the HapMap open up new avenues to integrate genetic effects into biodemographic research.  More researchers are needed with the appropriate interdisciplinary training to make advances in this field.

Integrating Biology and Genetics with Behavioral and Social Sciences, Including Implications for Data Collection and Models of Analysis

Social scientists have realized the value of integrating a wide array of disciplinary perspectives and methods into demographic models of the health status of populations and the expected life cycles of individuals.  Such integration also enables researchers to study the role of biomarkers which have been previously linked to health outcomes, psychosocial and sociodemographic factors.  Advances require integration among fields such as epidemiology, biostatistics, psychology, biology, anthropology and medicine.  The National Academy of Sciences report Cells and Surveys: Should Biological Measures Be Included in Social Science Research (NAS, 2001) discussed the research potential of collecting biological data from individuals in household surveys.  Also, the report New Horizons in Health: An Integrative Approach (NAS, 2001) emphasized the need for NIH research investment to integrate the behavioral, social, and biomedical sciences. The collection of biological and genetic markers and physical performance measures are now increasingly common features of both population-based and laboratory-based social science studies of aging and health.  Biomarkers can contribute to understanding how psychological, social and behavioral factors interact with biology to influence health outcomes at older ages at both the population and individual levels; they are valuable for adjusting observed differences by gender, SES and other traits for unobserved characteristics in a population; and they provide insight into prior exposures to infection and earlier life circumstances.  More researchers are needed who can use biological, genetic and physical performance data to better inform social science models and analytic techniques.

Genetics, Behavior and Aging

Behavior and age-related changes in behavioral processes are integral to how well we age. Many behavioral phenotypes, such as resilience, cognitive and functional abilities, social connectedness, happiness, longevity and loneliness are intrinsic to maintaining health and quality of life. Behavior also plays a critical mediating role (e.g. smoking, alcohol use, exercise, risk taking behaviors, adherence, social engagement) in health and disease.  Understanding the causes of variation in behavioral development, plasticity, stability, adaptation and change with age is essential to maintaining and enhancing quality of life throughout old age.  Also, advances in genetics, genomics and statistical methodology have increased our ability to investigate behavior and how it affects aging at the level of genetic influence. It is well recognized that such genetic expression also depends on environments, and efforts to combine genetic and environmental levels of inquiry hold much promise for understanding variation in aging.  More researchers are needed who can conduct human and non-human studies to advance our understanding of the genetic and environmental influences and processes affecting variability in behavior and its functional sequelae with age.  NIA is specifically interested in behaviors that are critical to quality of life among the aged, either as outcomes or as mediators of physical or cognitive health and function. Examples of relevant behavioral domains include, but are not limited to,  social behaviors, resilience, vitality, adaptivity, personality, vulnerability to stress, health behaviors, social cognition,  human and social capital accumulation, economic savings for retirement, risk-taking, happiness, coping, caregiving, cognitive abilities, cognitive flexibility, cognitive reserve, learning, and functional abilities.   Examples of research topics are the nature and role of genetic influences on behaviors at older ages, and how these genetic effects vary with age; and questions about dynamic processes including gene-environment interactions, gene-environment covariation, age-related genetic effects, and how behaviors interact with and affect genetic expression. 

Economics and Psychology

There are strong trends in both the private and public sectors to expand the scope for individual choices about matters that have a major impact on Americans' preparation for retirement and on their welfare during retirement. For example, defined benefit retirement plans are being replaced by defined contribution plans in which individuals choose the composition of their portfolio, whether to convert it into an annuity at retirement or keep it as a lump sum, and how much to use for consumption and how much to leave as a bequest. Proposals to introduce personal accounts would confront additional households with such decisions. The scope for individual choice in health insurance and medical services is also growing more complex for a variety of reasons.  Some people need to make a choice of health insurance plan types from a complex menu while others are worried that their employer will no longer offer insurance. New technologies offer more opportunities for prevention and treatment and possibly a greater burden on ability to comply with medical and pharmaceutical regimens.  There is great heterogeneity in the cognitive capacity of older persons, partly due to differences in education and life long levels of cognitive ability and partly due to age-related changes in cognition including transition into dementia.  More psychologists are needed with economics training so that advances can be made in studying the impact of cognition on financial and health decisions in the real world and more economists are needed with psychological training so that heterogeneous cognitive capacity can be incorporated into models of behavioral economics and bounded rationality.


Current demographic and economic trends raise pressing questions about older adults’ abilities to manage the myriad decisions they face regarding retirement, Medicare, and healthcare management.  The overwhelming majority of research on retirement and savings decisions is based on the economic theory of rational life-cycle utility maximizing agents. Recent studies have begun to consider the validity of some of the assumptions that underlie these theories and to explore their biological foundations.  The emerging field of neuroeconomics exemplifies the kind of multi-level, interdisciplinary research needed to advance understanding on these themes.  Neuroeconomics applies psychological, economic, and neuroscience approaches to the study of motivated choice, economic decision making, and valuation or utility as typically understood in economic terms.  Potential topics for study include the neurophsyiological (including neuroendocrine, genetic, electrophysiological, and hemodynamic) correlates of age-related changes in judgment and decision making processes, reward processing, social behavior (including trust, cooperation, competition, intergenerational exchange), and the performance of individuals in market economies.  This research has the potential to transform standard economic models, enlighten research on decision making and aging, and inform supportive interventions in the areas of health care management and retirement.

Social Neuroscience

Neuroscience methods are increasingly being applied to the study of topics in developmental, social, and personality psychology.  This is yielding insights into the biological basis of a variety of social phenomena such as attitude and stereotype formation, socioemotional influences on decision making, and the mechanisms underlying interpersonal attachment, trust, and empathy.  Training is encouraged which combines behavioral with neuroendocrine, genetic, neuroimaging, and psychophysiological methods on topics such as (1) socioemotional influences on decision making and well-being and their development and manifestation over adulthood; (2) social factors involved in motivation and behavioral change; and (3) the biological mechanisms through which social networks and relationship quality influence health outcomes.  Advancements in these areas will enhance our understanding of the impact of the social environment on health, and will guide development of life-cycle appropriate interventions to improve psychological well-being, communication, social connectedness and health.

Economics and Medicine

Advances in cutting-edge research in health economics requires more individuals with both rigorous economics training and a deep understanding of medicine and health.  This announcement encourages applications from rigorously trained economists to learn medicine, and also encourages applications from physicians to learn economic theory and methods.  It is hoped that such interdisciplinary training will advance the application of rigorous economic approaches to topics such as: the impact of medical care on public sector economics; geographic variation in the use of effective medical care; efficiency of Medicare; mechanisms generating disparities in health outcomes; measuring the productivity of the health care sector; measuring economic value of health and health care; and measuring economic costs of burden of illness

Page last updated Feb 16, 2008