From Life Span to Health Span

Albright Symposium focuses on science of living well through old age

Three people sit at table in front of audience
From left: Keynote speakers Bruce Yankner and Sharon Inouye discuss the science of healthy aging with HMS Dean George Q. Daley. The easel bears a portrait of symposium namesake Hollis Albright. Image: Gretchen Ertl

In 1919, the average life expectancy for people born in the U.S. was about 56 years. Today, that has risen to almost 79 years.

Older populations in particular are growing. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 65-year-olds can expect to live another 19 years on average, five more than in 1950. As baby boomers age, the number of U.S. adults over 65 is expected to more than double by 2060, outnumbering children for the first time, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

As progress on multiple fronts has made it possible for many people to live longer, interest has grown in how to age well: preserving physical and mental health to maximize quality of life in the elder years.

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“At medical school, we were told that our aim should be to help our patients die young as late as possible,” surgeon and Harvard Medical School alumna Tenley Albright quipped at the 2019 Hollis L. Albright, MD ’31 Symposium.

During the forum, entitled “Healthy Longevity and the Science of Brain Health,” researchers highlighted a selection of projects that are uncovering fundamental mechanisms of both healthy aging and age-related conditions.

Tenley and brother Nile Albright established the annual symposium in 2001 in honor of their father, an HMS surgeon who dedicated his life to patient care and student mentorship. 

Individual and societal challenges surrounding the aging brain and the aging U.S. demographic are “coming at us like a juggernaut,” said HMS Dean George Q. Daley, the Caroline Shields Walker Professor of Medicine, at the March 28 event in the School’s New Research Building.

“Understanding how we age—and what actions, genetics and environmental influences may promote healthy aging—are among the most exciting and important and impactful topics we wish to study at HMS,” he said.

Tackling delirium

Many conditions once thought to be an inevitable consequence of aging are now understood to be preventable.

Keynote speaker Sharon Inouye, HMS professor of medicine and director of the Aging Brain Center at Hebrew SeniorLife, was instrumental in demonstrating that, contrary to previous belief, it’s possible to stop hospitalized older adults from sliding into delirium.

Inouye spoke about how she and her colleagues developed a diagnostic checklist for delirium, which is characterized by acute confusion and reduced awareness of surroundings. They identified risk factors for the condition and established a set of interventions that led to a 40 percent drop in delirium cases. The approach has since been adopted by more than 200 hospitals.

Inouye described how she has expanded her research into uncovering the basic mechanisms of delirium and tracking older patients’ long-term cognitive trajectories after surgery. She pointed to mounting evidence that delirium can lead to dementia.

Despite significant progress, there is still a long way to go, Inouye said. 

No one person, even a world expert, can prevent delirium. It has to be a coordinated effort of the entire health care system.

Sharon Inouye

HMS professor of medicine at Hebrew SeniorLife

There are some positive aspects of aging that are overlooked in the obsession our society has with youth.

Bruce Yankner

Professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS