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Conference on healthspan offers new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration

IRVINE, Calif. -- More than 160 participants gathered this week for the fifth annual National Academies Keck FUTURES INITIATIVE conference. This year's topic, "The Future of the Human Healthspan: Demography, Evolution, Medicine and Bioengineering," drew scientists, engineers, and medical researchers to discuss new interdisciplinary approaches in the fields of aging, longevity, and healthspan -- the period of a person's life during which they are generally healthy and free from serious or chronic illness.

We have made great progress in extending the length of life and now must focus on the quality of those added years, said John W. Rowe, M.D., professor of Health Policy and Management, Columbia University, New York, and this year's conference chair. We need to be bold and target innovative ways to help people sustain skills and abilities throughout extended lifetimes, assuring enhanced brain health as well as physical well-being.

To encourage further interdisciplinary work, the National Academies announced the availability of $1 million in seed grants up to $100,000 each to speed new lines of research identified at the conference. Recipients of the competitive grants will be announced in April 2008.

As one way to bridge communication gaps among researchers from different fields, the organizers held pre-conference Webcast "tutorials" in which speakers provided an overview of their fields in language that scientists, engineers, or medical researchers from other disciplines could understand. Topics included life expectancy; social and behavioral determinants of healthy life; stress, lifestyle and the prevention of decline; prolonging life through replacement, repair, and regeneration; animal models in aging research; quality of life technology; and the cellular and molecular causes of aging. These tutorials are available online at

During the conference, researchers participated in one of twelve task groups to develop possible research plans to approach particular challenges. Among the challenges were how to prolong human health; enhancing the capacity of older persons to function; assessing lifelong health; changes in social contexts and the functional status of the elderly; and the role of exercise in increasing the human healthspan. Representatives from public and private funding organizations, government, industry, graduate writing students, and the media also participated in these working groups.

Participants also presented posters describing their latest research, covering topics such as memory training, baby boomer health at 60, supervised exercise programs for people with dementia, and assistive robotics.

2007 Communication Awards

Encouraging better communication among scientists in various fields and between scientists and the public are key components of the FUTURES INITIATIVE. During the conference, the National Academies presented their 2007 Communication Awards to Eric Kandel, author of IN SEARCH OF MEMORY: THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW SCIENCE OF MIND, a scientist's personal memoir that skillfully blends an explanation of the science of memory; Carl Zimmer, freelance writer, for his diverse and consistently interesting coverage of evolution and unexpected biology; and Jad Abumrad, host/producer, Robert Krulwich, co-host, and Ellen Horne, senior producer of Radio Lab, WNYC, New York Public Radio, for their imaginative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audiences.

The awards recognize excellence in communicating science, engineering, and medicine to the public. Each winner received a $20,000 cash prize and spoke to conference attendees about their views on the value of communicating science well.

Launched in 2003 by the National Academies and the W.M. Keck Foundation, the National Academies Keck FUTURES


Contact: National Academies' Office of News and Public Information
The National Academies

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