Genetics, Behavior, and Aging

Environmental Health Perspectives, August 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

Genetics, Behavior, and Aging


This program announcement (PA) solicits novel research integrating genetics, behavior and aging. Human and non-human studies are needed to advance our understanding of the genetic and environmental influences and processes affecting variability in behavior and its functional sequelae with age. This includes studies that help elucidate the relationships of levels and change in behavior to health, functional competence, and quality of life of older adults. This PA is framed around two broad categories of questions: (1) gene-to-behavior questions concerning the nature and role of genetic influences on behaviors at older ages, and how these genetic effects vary with age; and (2) questions about dynamic processes including gene-environment interactions, gene-environment covariation, age-related genetic effects, and how behaviors interact with and affect genetic expression. The behaviors that are eligible for study under this PA should be critical to quality of life among the aged, either as outcomes or as mediators of physical or cognitive health and function. Examples of relevant behavioral domains include, but are not limited to, social behaviors, resilience, vitality, adaptivity, personality, vulnerability to stress, health behaviors, social cognition, human and social capital accumulation, economic savings for retirement, risk-taking, happiness, coping, caregiving, cognitive abilities, cognitive flexibility, cognitive reserve, learning, and functional abilities. This PA is intended to stimulate methodologically rigorous research integrating genetics, other biological sciences, and the behavioral and social sciences. To be considered responsive to this announcement, interdisciplinary perspectives must be unambiguous, the relationship between the behaviors or social processes under study and healthy aging should be articulated, and the proposed study should be embedded within a well articulated set of questions or hypotheses generated from social science and behavioral research. This announcement updates and replaces a previous PA, Behavior Genetics in Adulthood and Old Age (PAS-98-076, issued May 21, 1998).

Behavior and age-related changes in behavioral processes are integral to how well we age. Many behavioral phenotypes, such as resilience, cognitive and functional abilities, social connectedness, happiness, longevity and loneliness are intrinsic to maintaining health and quality of life. Behavior also plays a critical mediating role (e.g. smoking, alcohol use, exercise, risk taking behaviors, adherence, social engagement) in health and disease. Understanding the causes of variation in behavioral development, plasticity, stability, adaptation and change with age is essential to maintaining and enhancing quality of life throughout old age.

Family and twin studies on aging have demonstrated the importance of genetic influences for variation in a large array of behavioral phenotypes related to personality, well-being, functional abilities, cognitive aging, longevity and health. More recent findings based on the longitudinal twin design indicate the importance of genetic influences on functional stability and the importance of environments for change. To move beyond these findings innovative studies are needed that investigate genetic effects within the context of the dynamic aging processes in which they are expressed. This will involve diverse approaches that: integrate molecular and quantitative methods, focus on behavioral systems for which known or candidate genes are identified, explore social processes that affect individual environments, include measures of biological intermediaries of the behaviors, and use non-linear analytic approaches to study genes, social factors and environments in developmentally dynamic ways.

The underlying conceptual model is multifactorial, highlighting the combined action of multiple genetic and environmental influences where phenotypic variation arises as a function of genotypic and environmental differences between people within a particular population.

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