How the Healthy Aging Initiative Can Empower You to Change Your Health Trajectory

Get your personal study results that tell you about the state of your health by joining this study about aging well.

Author: Heather Andrews
Senior woman sitting outside

People live longer than they used to, with life expectancy increasing by more than six years from 2000 to 2019. While that’s something to celebrate, healthy life expectancy isn’t keeping pace. That means that even though people are living longer lives, many are spending those extra years with disabilities and diseases that decrease their quality of life.

Aging-related functional decline can have wide-ranging impacts, affecting physical and mental health and resulting in a loss of independence, a need for supportive care, and a rise in disability.

The World Health Organization’s work on the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing 2021-2030 is one attempt to tackle these challenges. Describing itself as a global initiative to “add life to years,” the driving goal of the worldwide collaboration is “to improve the lives of older people, their families, and the communities in which they live.”

Hebrew SeniorLife’s Harvard Medical School-affiliated Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research has responded to the Decade of Healthy Ageing with the Healthy Aging Initiative. The Healthy Aging Initiative is a longitudinal study leveraging the expertise of every scientist and research center at the Marcus Institute to empower older adults to stay healthier for longer.

The motivation behind the Healthy Aging Initiative 

Simply being older doesn’t cause disease. “It’s not aging that causes these illnesses. It’s aging that gives illness a chance to present itself,” explains Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, principal investigator of the Healthy Aging Initiative. Dr. Pascual-Leone is a senior scientist at the Marcus Institute, medical director of Hebrew SeniorLife’s Deanna and Sidney Wolk Center for Memory Health, and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

At the same time, age is the primary risk factor for many illnesses and disabilities. The good news is that for many people, lifestyle factors within your control can reduce the risk of developing the diseases and health conditions that become more prevalent with age.

The Healthy Aging Initiative is driven by a fundamental question: What do individuals need to enhance their longevity and well-being? This question serves as the guiding motivation for our initiative, which aims to:

  • Identify predictors of lifelong health.
  • Discover early biomarkers for disease.
  • Better understand disease progression.
  • Identify risk indicators
  • Develop interventions.
  • Promote diversity and inclusion in research.

Through these objectives, the Healthy Aging Initiative endeavors to empower older adults to proactively manage their health and well-being, thereby enhancing their quality of life and promoting healthy aging.

The Marcus Institute’s expert scientists and faculty members across research centers convened numerous times to determine the most important health factors to test during the assessment. Our researchers come from various backgrounds in health, aging, and disease, and it took time and deliberation to narrow down all the options and decide exactly what to test.  

What can you expect from the assessment? 

First, you’ll have a quick phone call to determine eligibility. If you’re eligible to participate, you’ll complete a 15-30 minute phone or email survey, which begins with informed consent. Then, you’ll come to the Marcus Institute in Roslindale for an annual 30-minute in-person assessment. If you’re a Hebrew SeniorLife resident, we’ll meet you at a convenient location within your housing community.

During that assessment, we’ll look at several factors that can influence your health as you age, including: 

  • Physical health markers like blood pressure, gait and mobility, hand grip strength, and BMI.
  • Cognitive health markers like executive functioning and processing speed, verbal fluency, and memory.
  • Mental health markers like life satisfaction, sense of purpose, depression and anxiety, and stress.
  • Lifestyle choices like physical activity, nutrition, sleep, social connection, and smoking.

When designing our assessment, we included all the markers needed to measure your frailty score. A recent blog post from Dr. Dae Hyun Kim, founder of the Frailty Research Program at the Marcus Institute, talks about why measuring frailty in older adults translates to better health care.

After taking the assessment, you’ll receive a detailed report that breaks down the physical, cognitive, and emotional markers and the lifestyle factors contributing to your overall health. You’ll better understand areas that may need more attention, walk away with actionable next steps, and receive helpful resources on the healthy aging topics most relevant to you.

It’s important to emphasize that the report you receive is not clinical — you should see your health care provider for that — but it can empower you with the knowledge to make healthy lifestyle changes or to initiate a conversation with your doctor.

If you find out your blood pressure is high during your assessment, for example, it may inspire you to speak with your doctor about whether they are concerned or want to make a plan. If you flagged that your diet could be a bit healthier, you may find that the links and resources in your report are a helpful starting point for making some changes. And it’s not all negative! The report also shows you the areas of your health that are doing just fine, which is something to celebrate.

The Healthy Aging Initiative is not an isolated, one-time assessment — we aim to repeat the assessment every year for participants. “The idea behind the initiative is that we can capture health information and establish a trajectory for all of us. What are the markers that anticipate illness? What can we do about those markers? How early can we detect them? We want to do this assessment yearly and if there’s a health issue, the report will tell you that. You are now empowered to make the right decisions,” explains Dr. Pascual-Leone.

We have more in store, too. Hebrew SeniorLife offers many services for Russian-speaking seniors, with a flourishing Russian-speaking community at our supportive senior apartment community Center Communities of Brookline. To broaden accessibility to native Russian speakers both within Hebrew SeniorLife and the Greater Boston community, we’re working to translate the Healthy Aging Initiative materials into Russian. Dr. Pascual-Leone also plans to expand the study by collecting blood biomarkers — which would be optional for participants — to look at key indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. We’re just getting started. 

Communication is a two-way street between participants and researchers

One of the unique aspects of the Healthy Aging Initiative is our dedication to maintaining an open line of communication with participants. We receive and implement feedback on an ongoing basis to ensure participants get the most value out of their experience. After all, participants getting real value out of the study is the cornerstone of why we’re doing this!

During our pilot study, 37 residents from Hebrew SeniorLife communities Jack Satter House in Revere, MA, and NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, MA, completed assessments and received reports. Afterward, 79% agreed or strongly agreed that becoming involved in the study benefited them, and 86% planned to participate in the future.

While those results are significant, we wanted to know more about people’s experiences. When we ran focus groups, one piece of feedback became clear: while the assessment was valuable, it was also too long — at the time, it took over two hours to complete. In response to that feedback, we changed things. We took the time to consider which health markers we needed to keep in the assessment so participants could get the most out of their results and which ones we could exclude so it didn’t take as long.

We now have Healthy Aging Initiative 2.0. If you take the assessment today, it will take up to one hour to complete — and only 30 minutes of that hour is in person. Since that pilot, we’ve expanded to every Hebrew SeniorLife community (with plans to kick off at the new Leyland Community in Dorchester, MA, in mid-2024).

When participants expressed interest in hearing from Marcus Institute researchers directly, we launched the Healthy Aging Initiative Lecture Series. Our scientists have given talks on different aspects of healthy aging, including nutrition, cardiovascular disease, cognitive health, and mobility and falls, based on their areas of expertise. You can watch recordings from the Healthy Aging Initiative lecture series on our website.

We also have a growing community of Healthy Aging Initiative ambassadors — Hebrew SeniorLife residents who volunteer their time to share their experiences as participants with family and friends and to help recruit others. The response has been outstanding, and we are eager to continue shaping this study with participants, not just for them, as it develops even further.

Who can join the study? 

You can participate in the Healthy Aging Initiative if you are:

  • 55+ years old and live in a Hebrew SeniorLife Community.
  • 55+ years old and can travel to the Marcus Institute in Roslindale for an in-person assessment.
  • 18+ years old and family member of a Hebrew SeniorLife resident.
  • 18+ years old and a Hebrew SeniorLife staff member. 

Start living your healthiest life

Hebrew SeniorLife is dedicated to helping older adults live their best lives, which aligns perfectly with the overarching goal of the Decade of Healthy Ageing. We do this through our vibrant senior living communities, comprehensive range of personalized health care services, influential research on aging, and by teaching the next generation of geriatric care professionals.

By choosing to participate in the Healthy Aging Initiative study, you will learn more about your current health and receive a yearly report that provides actionable steps to enhance your overall well-being. You’ll also help researchers gain valuable medical insights, leading to better health outcomes for all older adults.

If you’re interested in becoming involved with the Healthy Aging Initiative, contact us online today

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Research on Aging

At the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, Harvard Medical School-affiliated researchers are working to uncover answers to some of the most pressing challenges of aging.

Three Marcus Institute researchers are seated at a table, each looking at a computer screen; one of the screens is facing us and displays image of three brain scans. Behind the people, the same image is projected on a large screen
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About Heather Andrews

Study Coordinator

Heather is a dedicated advocate for health and well-being, with a rich background in psychology and neuropsychology. At the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife, she plays a pivotal role in the longitudinal Healthy Aging...

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