Research project that explores aging in South Africa receives NIH/NIA funding

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Researchers from The Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies (HCPDS), the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Cape Town have been awarded $27 million from the NIA to further their collaborative program project, Health and Aging in Africa: A Longitudinal Study in South Africa (HAALSI). The next five-year phase of HAALSI includes a fourth and fifth survey wave of a community-representative cohort in rural Agincourt, South Africa, and the launch of a nationally representative longitudinal HAALSI survey across South Africa.

Since 2013, HCPDS’ flagship project has been examining the demographic and epidemiologic transition taking place in South Africa, one of many countries whose population has experienced a boost in life expectancy. These gains have meant that the region has also experienced unprecedented levels of chronic, non-communicable diseases among its aging population. Identification of social and economic factors shaping health inequities is central to the study. By harmonizing data about South Africa with data from other global studies of aging, such as the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and sister studies in India, China, Brazil, the UK, and Europe, the HAALSI study provides an opportunity to compare the biological, social, and economic determinants of chronic diseases and their effects on functional and health outcomes in aging populations on a global scale.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of people suffering from dementia globally is projected to rise from 55 million (with over 60 percent living in low- and middle-income countries) to 78 million in 2030, and 139 million by 2050. In this newly funded phase, HAALSI scientists plan to expand their focus on cognitive aging and dementia. The team will continue to use validated approaches to the study of dementia using the Harmonized Cognitive Assessment Protocol (HCAP). The resulting data will not only share insights from a region of the world where aging is not well understood, but can help shed light on the nature of aging within a global context.

The grant is led by co-principal investigators Lisa Berkman, Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and director of HCPDS, and Thomas Gaziano, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in the division of cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Berkman and Gaziano continue to lead the project with Stephen Tollman, director of MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt), research professor and head of the Health and Population Division, School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand. They will be joined for the national survey launch by Murray Leibbrandt, professor in the School of Economics, University of Cape Town, and director of Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU). The team will engage directly with policy-makers in South Africa including Statistics South Africa and the South African Medical Research Council as the country takes on new challenges around ensuring healthy aging of its population.