Public Agenda Report Gauges Public's Understanding of Research on Aging

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Last week, I shared some findings from a 2005 report entitled “The Science of Aging Gracefully: Scientists and the Public talk about Aging Research” that was prepared by Public Agenda for the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Federation for Aging Research. Last week’s sharepost focused on the scientists’ views of what is happening in aging and specific medical issues related to aging (such as ALzheimer's) as well as their thoughts about the future. This week I want to focus on the report’s findings concerning how public opinion compares with scientists’ perceptions. The scientists’ views were collected in interviews whereas public opinion was ascertained through a focus group and survey.

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    So what were the researchers’ findings? Here goes:

    • Length of life vs. living healthier longer. Researchers believe that people think that aging researching focuses on living longer as opposed to living healthier longer, and credit the popular media for causing this impression. However, it turns out that people don’t get their information just from popular media. “We found that people’s first source of information about the relationship between lifespan and health span is their families,” the study’s authors wrote. “While researchers are likely correct about the failures of media to accurately portray aging research, most people have a more nuanced understanding of health-span because of the knowledge gained watching older family members age.”
    • Lifestyle changes. Researchers believe that the general public doesn’t understanding how important lifestyle changes (such as diet, exercise, weight control, supplements, stress management, and a sense of meaning and purpose) are in determining the aging process. However, the study’s authors found that the general public was aware of the importance of diet and exercise.  Still, they weren’t aware of other factors. “Weight control, caloric restriction and stress management are often mentioned by researchers as key factors in increasing health-span, but in terms of public perception, only 7% of the people interviewed said that stress management is one of the most important factors in health and longevity,” the authors wrote. “Only 4% said weight control is among the most important things one can do to live a long and healthy life….While a majority of scientists we spoke with said that vitamin and supplements are a very important part of health-span, many members of the focus group expressed suspicion when discussing supplements.”  Finally, the general public appears to understand the importance of having a meaning and purpose to life based on their own experiences and those of their family and friends.
    • Socioeconomic effects on longevity. Researchers believe that the public does not understand the role that socioeconomic status plays in health-span. However, the Public Agenda research found that “the general public seems to have a clear understanding of the relationship between socioeconomic status and health.” In addition, focus group participants discussed the role of family structure  and how knowledge and values are transmitted within a family
    • Aging research vs. disease research. Scientists believe the public needs a better understanding of the difference between aging research and disease research. The Public Agenda study reports, “For researchers and scientists, one of the key problems with getting public support for basic aging research is the idea that most people think fatalistically about aging. Whereas the public thinks of diseases in terms of possible cures, aging may strike most people as something that is inevitable.” While members of the focus group did state that aging and death is inevitable, most participants were supportive of basic aging research. Additionally, participants in the focus group expressed general support for research using stem cells. “This is significant, because researchers tend to think that moral and religious beliefs among the public are among the chief obstacles to advancing stem-cell research,” the report’s authors stated. “Our focus group findings suggest that the moral and religious obstacle to stem-cell research are more political than they are an expression of public mores.”
    • Development of meaningful interventions. Scientists believe that the public has unrealistic expectations as far as the timeframe necessary to develop meaningful interventions. However, the Public Agenda survey found that more than two-thirds of Americans think that research needs to be supported for many years until cures are found.
    • Funding for aging research. Scientists believe that the public is not aware of the importance of funding aging research. However, that’s not necessarily the case. The Public Agenda researchers wrote, “While it is true that many people we spoke with are concerned with government waste and bureaucracy when it comes to funding public projects of any kind and expressed a deep distrust of governmental structures more generally, nearly 9 in 10 people surveyed said that the level of funding for aging should be maintained or increased.” The Public Agenda researchers also found that half of that group stated that government funding should be increased. Only 5% of those surveyed believed that the level of funding should be decreased. Additionally, researchers and the public expressed concern about the role of pharmaceutical companies in providing funds for biomedical research.

    This study is interesting since it shows many areas in which the U.S. public is in synch with the recent findings concerning aging. However, there are still areas in which the general public needs to be educated, including the factors that can help slow aging. Those are the topics that I and other HealthCentral contributors plan to keep sharing with this community. Here’s to a long and healthy life!

Published On: January 10, 2011