Presentations at annual Gerontological Society of America meeting

November 9, 1995
Diane Swanbrow

The 50th annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, November 15-19 in Los Angeles, brings together the world’s best researchers on aging. Among them are the following scientists from the University of Michigan, available to discuss their latest findings.

DON’T FORGET YOUR PILLS TODAY — The middle-aged are more likely than people in their 60s to forget to take prescription medications, according to Denise Park, a psychologist at the U-M Institute of Gerontology and the principal investigator on several studies of medication adherence funded by the National Institute on Aging. ” A lot of middle-aged people are just too busy to remember to take their medication,” says Park. ” But attitudes about illness also come into play—some middle-aged people have trouble believing or accepting that they have chronic conditions requiring on-going medication.” The old-old are the least adherent group of all, says Park, with forgetfulness and other cognitive problems compounding the difficulty of complying with medication regimes that become more complex with age.

AGING AND IMMUNE DEFICIENCY — What makes the immune system weaken with age, leaving the elderly more and more vulnerable to infections and perhaps also to cancer? According to U-M researcher Richard A. Miller and colleagues, a major cause of the immune deficiency that occurs with age is a shift in the kinds of T lymphoctye blood cells. Miller’s work shows that there are special T cells that appear only in old age. He chairs a symposium on the cellular immunology of aging, during which he will present new data explaining how this shift in T cell types may lead to a decline in protective immune function.

THE STUDY OF AGING COMES OF AGE — The formal discipline of gerontology celebrates its 50th birthday this year and two new books by U-M historian W. Andrew Achenbaum mark the occasion. In with Daniel Albert and published by Greenwood Press and in by Cambridge University Press, Achenbaum provides accessible but detailed guides to a field that is 50 years young and getting better every day, like growing numbers of baby boomers.

COMPUTER-SAVVY SENIORS — Older adults are not the hopeless technophobes wired whipper-snappers may imagine. With the right kind of help, they can learn to use computers, according to U-M psychologist Roger Morrell. To encourage seniors to surf the net, or least navigate a vertical desktop, Morrell and colleagues designed two types of instructional materials: an animated, interactive CD-ROM and a printed, illustrated manual adjusted to fading eyesight and designed to reduce what a user has to remember. The researchers tested both types of materials with 92 older adults, ranging in age from 60 to 89. Among their findings: the young-old out-performed the old-old, but education, level of working memory and other cognitive abilities are more important predictors of computer skill than chronological age; and older adults of all ages can use interactive software as well as printed instruction manuals.

RACE DIFFERENCES IN HEALTH AND RETIREMENT — Poor health is the reason older Blacks are less likely than older whites to remain in the labor force, according a U-M study of race differences in labor force attachment and disability status. Based on data from the Health and Retirement Study conducted at the U-M Institute for Social Research, the analysis of 8,637 men and women between the ages of 51 and 61 by U-M researchers John Bound and Timothy Waidmann and University of California at Berkeley researcher Michael Schoenbaum showed that Black women and men are significantly more likely than whites to report fair or poor health, and these differences in health status explain much of the difference in Black vs. white labor force participation at older ages. Only 17 percent of white men and women surveyed said their health was fair or poor, compared to 33 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of Black men and women. But a much higher proportion of Blacks than whites were on disability, looking for work, or retired. ” Both Black men and women are more likely to be in physically demanding jobs for which good health is important,” explains Schoenbaum, ” and those with impairments may have particular trouble finding alternative employment.”

Institute of GerontologyW. Andrew AchenbaumGreenwood PressCambridge University PressInstitute for Social Research