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Investing in Research, Pushing for Advocacy for Treatments & Prevention of Sarcopenia: Interview with Dr. Roger Fielding, Tufts University

Published October 10, 2012

Though the nation is in a time of economic constraint, limited research resources and numerous competing chronic conditions driving up health care costs, recognizing the importance of physical function and sarcopenia is more crucial now than ever. Dr. Roger Fielding, member of the AIM Science Advisory Board and senior scientist and director of the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology, and Sarcopenia Laboratory at Tufts University, stresses the importance of acknowledging issues around sarcopenia and functional decline as a top public health priority.

Dr. Fielding, whose work and research focuses on muscle loss, functional decline in the elderly and the effects of behavioral interventions on muscle power, believes that researchers, regulators and investors must continue to press forward for better care and greater scientific discovery. Though there are many costly, chronic conditions affecting millions of Americans, sarcopenia and related functional decline is increasingly being viewed as one of the most important issues in geriatric care because it is often the result of multiple chronic conditions that accelerate it.

“The majority of people as they get older have a number of chronic diseases or conditions, all of which contribute to the worsening of physical function and muscle dysfunction with aging,” said Dr. Fielding. “The thing that many older people worry about and are most afraid of is their loss of independence. I think we’ve done a really good job of treating a lot of the chronic diseases but there’s still this underlying loss of physical functioning.”

Regardless of development costs for treatments around the diminished physical function that commonly occurs with aging, the future payoff of new interventions and medical technology in this area will be palpable to the nation’s already burdened health care system. “If you treat people who have sarcopenia, and a lot of the people that we identify eventually as having risk factors for sarcopenia… there’s still a cost benefit, because the spiral that is associated with disability gets very expensive,” Dr. Fielding noted. The window of opportunity for this development will likely be long, Dr. Fielding continued, as researchers, policymakers and physicians seek ways to prevent their patients, the majority of whom will be part of a long wave of aging Baby Boomers, from having to transition to assisted living facilities and other, expensive long-term care scenarios.

Increasing patient education and encouraging patient-level advocacy is an important part in moving forward in the area of functional decline. “I think that many older people today don’t fully understand that the reason that they can’t get out of their chair is because their muscles are weak and they have this syndrome or disease called sarcopenia,” said Dr. Fielding. “The advocacy needs to come from the patients. As the numbers start to grow, that will start to happen.” Such measures will bolster research efforts in the area of muscle loss and functional decline in the elderly and increase patient awareness, encouraging patients to adopt good habits of physical activity that can prevent or alleviate the onset of sarcopenia to preserve independence for the older population.

“I think it’s very exciting to have an organization that has some interface with a lot of the important stakeholders in this,” remarked Dr. Fielding. “We’re the experts, but we talk to each other. We don’t talk to the people who are the regulators, the payers and the legislators, and the public, too. That’s where I see the importance that AIM has; the ability to try to engage those people as well. We can provide the information and talk about why these things are important, but AIM can provide the forum for where the people who need to hear this can hear it. It’s great.”

Dr. Fielding is Director and Senior Scientist of the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology, and Sarcopenia (NEPS) Laboratory, Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and Professor of Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Fielding is an internationally known researcher who studies the underlying mechanisms contributing to the age-associated decline in skeletal muscle mass, the resultant impact on function, and the potential role of exercise and physical activity on attenuating this process. Dr. Fielding has a strong record of NIH funding and oversaw the development of the interventions for the LIFE (Lifestyle Interventions for Elders) Pilot study and served as the Chair of the LIFE Intervention and Operations Committee. He also is a co-investigator and chair of the Body Composition Analysis committee for the NIA-funded “CALERIE” trial.

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