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Inside NIA: A Blog for Researchers

What is NIA’s Office of Special Populations and what does it do?

What is NIA’s Office of Special Populations and what does it do?

Just last month, NIA-funded researchers reported on a relationship between racial discrimination and telomere length among a community sample of African American men.  Telomere length, of course, has been associated with aging. And the study found that men with more experience of discrimination and more internalized racial bias had shorter telomeres, thus, perhaps, contributing to premature aging. While these types of findings need further research to determine causality, this fascinating finding illustrates the importance of research on health disparities in the basic biology of aging. Disparities are the focus of the NIA Office of Special Populations.

What is the Office of Special Populations and what can it do for you?

The NIA Office of Special Populations has two primary goals:

  1. fostering careers of scientists underrepresented in the field of aging research
  2. focusing on health disparities research both within NIA and in the context of NIH-wide efforts

Career development toward a more diverse research workforce was a hallmark of J Taylor Harden’s great leadership of this office. As the new director, I plan to continue her mission through the Butler-Williams Scholars Program (formerly the NIA Summer Institute on Aging Research). Indeed, the 2014 application is now available, so I encourage you to apply, or to circulate the link to others who might be interested. There’s also a series of webinars in the works to help connect the next generation to important NIA information and opportunities. The first one of these, "Options for New Investigators: Grant Mechanisms," is set for March 6, 2014.

We will also expand opportunities to link emerging investigators, particularly those invested in health disparities work, to helpful research and training resources at NIH and beyond. For us, addressing health disparities in aging research involves:

  1. investigating differences in life expectancy among American populations
  2. identifying factors that lead to variances in health status among Americans age 65 and older

The NIA Office of Special Populations will increase its promotion of disparities research directly, working specifically across NIH and with its National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. (See NIMHD’s strategic direction for determining priority populations for health disparities research.) We also hope to track NIA’s progress for supporting research on factors that diminish lifespan and health among specific groups of Americans. For example, the Office of Special Populations is working with NIA staff to develop new initiatives for stimulating health disparities research in priority areas identified by each NIA Division. So look out for more opportunities coming soon.

I look forward to being part of these and NIA’s other endeavors that highlight and address health disparities in aging.

If you have thoughts on the NIA Office of Special Populations and its work, please get in touch with me by commenting below.


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Posted by Tina Maschi on Feb 05, 2014 - 1:11 pm

Dear Dr. Hill, I want to bring attention to an important population of older people in prison, who are over represented by racial/ethnic minorities and persons living in poverty. As my research in this area indicates, the growing population of aging people in prison experience a lifetime of cumulative inequalities and health and justice disparities that are only exacerbated in prison. I currently have submitted applications to the Butler Williams Scholarship program to continue my research with the all to often overlooked vulnerable older adult population. I think it is important for NIA to recognize older adults in the criminal justice system as an aging group deserving of NIA attention.

Posted by Carl Hill on Feb 05, 2014 - 3:24 pm

Tina, thanks for the comment. Yes, racial/ethnic and lower SES populations that engage/are engaged by the criminal justice system deserve attention from the health disparities research enterprise. Here is some work ( that may help with our future discussions. Hope to talk soon.

Posted by Toni on Feb 05, 2014 - 2:27 pm

Dear Dr. Hill, Thank you for your post - the NIA blog provides relevant information for early-stage investigators. My program of research focuses on pain in older adults and palliative/end-of-life care. My dissertation research focused on vitamin D deficiency as a mediator of ethnic differences in pain for older adults with knee osteoarthritis. RCTs on vitamin D supplementation have not included diverse representation to determine whether vitamin D repletion improves health outcomes. >>> The research shows that palliative and hospice care is less frequently utilized by African Americans; there is a need for research on effective palliative care models across diverse populations. >>> Like Tina, I have applied to attend the Butler-Williams Scholars Program. I learned about the program while in my PhD program; this is the first year I am eligible to attend. I hope to have the opportunity to meet you, the NIA program officials, and colleaugues interested in research to improve the lives of older adults later this summer. Best, Toni

Posted by Carl Hill on Feb 05, 2014 - 3:28 pm

Thanks for your comment Toni. I hope to discuss your research to improve the lives of older adults in the near future.

Posted by Maria on Feb 07, 2014 - 10:32 am

Telomere length has been studied extensively with regards to cancer and other life conditions (e.g., immigration). It would be interesting to learn if the absence of racial discrimination has no effect on telomere shortening. Are there research studies examining telomere length with African immigrants who live in African countries? Is it possible that those who live in specific ethnic enclaves (e.g., African immigrants, Latino immigrants) and do not experience discrimination or racial sterotypes have longer life expectancy? Also, are there other life stresors that also can contribute to shorter life span as indicative in telomere shortening. Just a thought...