Science & Tech

National Institute on Aging funds two new “Roybal Center” programs at Harvard

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Christakis and Laibson head new efforts

Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas Christakis, whose work focuses on social networks, and economics professor David Laibson, who examines how and why people make the decisions they do regarding savings and health behaviors, have been selected to receive five year Roybal Center grants, of about $1.5 million each, from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a part of the National Institutes of Health.

According to the NIA announcement, “the goal of the Edward R. Roybal Centers for Research on Applied Gerontology is to move promising social and behavioral research findings out of the laboratory and into programs and practices that will improve the lives of older people and help society adapt to an aging population. The centers focus on a range of projects, including maintaining mobility and physical function, enhancing driving performance, understanding financial and medical decision making, and sharpening cognitive function.”

The NIA announced this week that it was establishing four new Roybal Centers, including the two at Harvard, and refunding nine already established Centers. The 13 research programs will receive a total of $23.4 million in funding over the next five years, with the funding coming from NIA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and a number of other federal agencies and programs focused on aging issues. The Roybal Centers were authorized by Congress in 1993 and named for former House Select Committee on Aging Chair Edward R. Roybal.

“The Roybal Centers have pursued a wide range of research that has yielded real-world results,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.). “This renewal and expansion of the centers carries on my father’s commitment to enhancing the lives of older Americans through research.”

And NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D., said the Centers “provide a research infrastructure to help accelerate the development of new products and technologies with the potential to develop innovative and practical solutions for a number of pressing problems affecting the health and quality of life of older Americans. This is increasingly important, given the rapid growth in the numbers of older people in the United States and around the world,” he continued.

Although each focuses on a particular aspect of aging, all of the centers concentrate on the translation of research into practical applications that can be moved quickly into practice.

Nicholas Christakis, whose center will focus on translational research on aging, said “the NIA support will allow us to begin to explore how to use insights from social networks to improve human health. Over the last few years, we have been trying to better understand how and why people form social networks and what they mean for our lives, and this will help us take the work to the next level.”

And David Laibson’s center, based at the National Bureau of Economic Research, will be looking at behavior change in health and saving in elderly populations. “Many of us fail to do what we plan to do,” Laibson said. “Procrastination and distraction stop people from saving for retirement, rebalancing their investment portfolio, writing a will, quitting smoking, going in for a seasonal flu shot, or getting an annual check-up.  Our interventions nudge people in the right direction, by making good behavior easy or even by making good behavior the default.”