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Health at All Ages
How does a child’s diet affect her bones for life? Why do some people develop dementia but others don’t? These and hundreds of other questions drive the work of NIH researchers committed to ensuring the health and well-being of Americans throughout the lifespan. Thanks to NIH research we have fluoride in our water to protect our teeth, cholesterol-lowering drugs to prevent heart disease, and a greater understanding of developmental disorders. We have unraveled the mystery of the human genome and looked inside the human brain. Today, due largely to NIH research, a baby born in the United States can expect to live to nearly age 79. And thanks to NIH, Americans and people around the world can hope to live healthier, safer, and more productive lives.
Genes Affect Quitting
NIH-funded research has found that genetics can predict how difficult it is likely to be for a smoker to quit and whether he or she could benefit from medications. The study moves health care closer to individualized quit treatments.
About 440,000 Americans die each year from preventable smoking-related diseases, including lung cancer, which kills more U.S. men and women than any other type of cancer. A study supported by several NIH Institutes found that people with high-risk forms of certain genes had much greater success in quitting smoking when they used medications approved for nicotine cessation.
Free Will and Drugs
Dr. Nora Volkow, neuroscientist and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), talks about the brain, addiction, and how some drugs can destroy free will in this New York Times Profiles in Science video.
Researchers now suspect that addiction is caused by a combination of genes and environment. Brain imaging shows that repeated drug-related experiences can, in fact, alter the workings of the brain. Read a New York Times article about NIDA director Nora Voklow’s research and how addictive substances affect the brain chemical dopamine.
Behavior and Addiction
“…[T]hrough my clinical studies, I have the privilege of maneuvering between two worlds — the laboratory and ‘real life.’ It’s enormously satisfying to bring advances in basic science to the patients, and also to bring clinical observations back to the lab to sharpen our focus as we move forward.”
Studying the effects that drugs have on the brain and on people’s behavior can help scientists develop programs for preventing drug abuse and helping people recover from addiction. It can also lead to insights in other areas of neuroscience.
New Ways to Fight Addiction
Substance abuse causes more deaths, illness, and disabilities than any other preventable health condition. Today, one in four deaths is attributable to alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use.
NIH is finding new ways — ranging from exercise to new drugs — to combat addiction. One NIH-funded study found that aerobic exercise might help cocaine abusers establish and maintain abstinence. Another study suggests that a class of drugs already approved as cancer treatments might also help people beat alcohol addiction.
Why Are Drugs Hard to Quit?
Quitting drugs is hard because addiction is a brain disease. NIH created this video to help people get easy-to-understand information about addiction.
Find other videos, fact sheets, quizzes, and more at NIH’s Easy-to-Read Drug Facts site. The National Institute on Drug Abuse created this easy-to-read website about drug abuse, addiction, and treatment. It has pictures and videos to help readers understand the text. The website also can read each page out loud. The pages are easy to print out to share with people who do not have computers. It’s also a resource for adult literacy educators who help people with low literacy.
Educating Teens on Addiction
Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a conversation with students at a high school.
NIH provides resources, such as NIDA for Teens and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) The Cool Spot, to help teenagers learn about drug and alcohol abuse. You can also visit NIAAA’s website to find out what the Institute is doing to understand and combat underage drinking.
Curry Spice May Treat Blinding Disease
Turmeric, a plant used to flavor curry powders, may have a use outside of the kitchen as an effective treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, an untreatable disease that leads to severe vision loss and blindness.
National Eye Institute-funded researchers found that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, may alleviate eye problems by preventing the loss of photoreceptors caused by one type of gene mutation associated with the disease. The amount of turmeric used in this study exceeded what a person would consume in a normal diet, and it’s too early to say what an effective dose would be to treat diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, but the yellow spice has a long history as an ancient remedy used in Asian cultures to treat a variety of ailments.
Diet and Vision
Millions of Americans young and old suffer from vision loss, including retinopathy associated with premature birth, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration.
National Eye Institute (NEI)-supported investigators are now discovering that omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as fish and some nuts and vegetable oils, may also keep our eyes healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered part of a healthy diet and help prevent cardiovascular disease.
Approximately 9 million people in the United States have age-related macular degeneration, with 1.75 million having significant vision loss from the advanced form of the disease. NEI is currently funding a 5-year, 4,000-participant Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS2) to evaluate the effect of fatty acids and the carotenoid nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin (found in fruits and vegetables) on the development of cataracts and advanced macular degeneration.
Uncommon Sense Challenges Conventional Vision
Using the BrainPort® device, a head-mounted camera serves as "eyes" to gather white, gray, and black pixels of visual information. A computer converts this information to gentle electrical impulses, which are sent to an array of electrodes sitting on the tongue of the user.
"Blindness was like a brick wall, and I couldn't figure out how to get through that wall. Did I climb over it? Did I climb around it? I became a real big believer in tools."
The scientific concept behind BrainPort® originated in the late 1960s by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a physician and engineer. The eye receives visual information and converts it to electrical impulses, which are sent to the brain for interpretation. With BrainPort®, such electrical impulses are sent to the brain by way of nerves in the tongue instead of the optic nerve in the eye.
Learning to use BrainPort® is similar to learning a new language, explains Dr. Aimee Arnoldussen, a neuroscientist and BrainPort® researcher. Initially, users must consciously translate the pattern of impulses on the tongue to the idea of an object in space. But, as a person becomes fluent in this process, the translation becomes automatic.
NIH-funded research has reduced the occurrence of childhood blindness.
NIH funded multicenter interdisciplinary research — the Vision in Preschoolers (VIP) Study — to determine whether certain tests could identify preschoolers in need of a comprehensive eye exam. Results showed that approximately 98% of 3- to 5-year-olds could be screened successfully.
Vision for the World
NIH researcher Dr. Sheila West in Niger with children affected by trachoma.
Trachoma is a bacterial infection of the eye that is the leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide, affecting more than 40 million people. NIH-funded research has played a critical role in assessing the effectiveness of providing antibiotic treatment to entire communities. This research is now helping to guide efforts to eliminate trachoma within the next decade.
NIH funding supports a revolutionary phone app that helps the blind.
NIH funding supported the creation of a phone app that helps people who are blind or visually impaired recognize common objects by using their iPhone camera. Users build their item database by photographing an item and recording an audio description. The app will then immediately recognize the item the next time the phone camera is pointed at it.
How Rare Are Rare Diseases?
In the United States, a rare disease is a disease that affects fewer than 200,000 people. There are nearly 7,000 rare diseases. Combined, they affect more than 25 million Americans and their families. The causes of many rare diseases are unknown, but some can be traced to changes, also called mutations, in genes. Researchers continue to make progress in the diagnosis, treatment, and even prevention of many rare diseases, but the majority of rare diseases still lack treatments.
Many NIH programs are focused on lessening the burden of rare diseases. The Office of Rare Diseases Research coordinates rare disease research and responds to research opportunities for rare diseases. The Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center provides comprehensive information on rare and genetic diseases in English and Spanish to patients, their families, health care providers, researchers, and the public. And, the Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases (TRND) program works to encourage and speed the development of new drugs for rare and neglected diseases.
The Human Genome Project and Rare Diseases
The Human Genome Project led to the discovery of the precise genetic cause of more than 4,500 rare diseases. In many of those disorders, knowledge of the basic DNA defect led to new approaches to treatments.
Living with Sickle Cell Disease
Nicholas H. and his mother Bridget talk about life with sickle cell disease.
Sickle cell disease is a serious disorder in which the body makes red blood cells that are shaped like crescents, or sickles, instead of like discs. The sickle cells tend to break down prematurely and to block blood flow, causing pain, serious infections, and organ damage.
Clinical Trials for Rare Blood Diseases
Neal Young, M.D., Chief of Hematology at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, discusses the value of clinical trials in medical research and the advantages of participating in trials. Dr. Young’s laboratory has developed and tested therapies for patients with aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder in which the body’s bone marrow doesn't make enough new blood cells.
The Office of Rare Diseases Research, working with the National Human Genome Research Institute, supports the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD), a service that provides information on rare diseases in English and Spanish to patients, families, health care providers, and researchers. Learn more about the public database of rare disease information, support groups for rare diseases, and clinical trials.
Children with Rare Diseases
Twelve-year-old Hayley Okines (r) and her mom Kerry sit on a panel of families affected by progeria at the Progeria Research Foundation’s 10th anniversary workshop.
Progeria is a rare disease that causes dramatic, premature aging. Children diagnosed with progeria age at seven times the normal rate, dying of heart attacks and strokes at an average age of 13. Discovery of the molecular cause of progeria has led to a clinical trial of a drug, originally developed for cancer, that is showing promise of slowing or stopping the course of the disease.
The Treatment Problem
Few drug companies conduct research into rare diseases because it is difficult to recover the costs of developing treatments for small, geographically dispersed populations.
NIH’s Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network studies approximately 90 rare diseases at more than 97 academic institutions. Since its inception, investigators have made progress in every aspect of clinical research of rare diseases being studied in the network.
Age-related Macular Degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) was once an untreatable, major cause of blindness. NIH researchers now understand much more about AMD and how to treat it.
NIH-supported researchers recently identified alterations in two genes that account for 75% of AMD risk. Another NIH-funded study found that a daily regimen of certain vitamins and minerals delays the onset of advanced AMD by 25%.
Web Site for Older Adults
“Good information is the best medicine for older adults.”
Visit NIHSeniorHealth to find reliable, easily accessible aging-related health information. The site features up-to-date health information presented in a variety of formats, such as videos and quizzes, and was specifically designed for older adults.
Ups and Downs of Aging
Older adults are leading longer and healthier lives, which Dr. Richard Hodes discusses in this video. NIH is making progress in research to prevent and treat diseases related to age, such as Alzheimer's disease and arthritis.
Exercise and Healthy Aging
Enjoy all four types of exercise at any age.
- Endurance or aerobic exercise: Dancing, walking, swimming, biking, jogging, and games such as tennis or basketball.
- Strength or resistance exercise: Lifting weights or using a resistance band.
- Balance: Tai Chi, standing on one foot, or walking heel to toe.
- Flexibility: Shoulder-arm stretches, calf stretches, and yoga.
Mixing them up gives more benefit and helps prevent injury. Here are some common questions about exercise and aging.
NIH's Go4Life Campaign helps older adults get active. NIH research has found that exercise offers many benefits for healthy aging. These include:
- Helps a person stay strong, fit, and independent.
- Helps to manage stress and mood.
- Prevents or delays disease.
- Increasing endurance lets a person stay active.
- Increasing strength helps the older adult continue doing daily tasks.
- Improving balance helps keep seniors from falling.
- Being more flexible reduces pain, allows for dancing, and means still being able to reach that top shelf.
NIHSeniorHealth offers much more information on the benefits of exercise. Join the many others who are getting active. Let Go4Life help you get started!
Can We Prevent Aging?
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) investigates ways to support healthy aging and prevent or delay the onset of age-related disease and decline. Researchers have already learned, for example, that healthful eating and exercise and physical activity help promote healthy aging. Can other things help? Is it possible to promote what is known as "active life expectancy" — the time late in life free of disability — or even to increase longevity? Other interventions may help but more research is needed. NIA research covers many topics on health and aging.
Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis occur more frequently in older adults. Research shows that successful treatment for osteoarthritis involves exercise, weight control, and rest from stress on joints.
Dr. Dewayne Nash has a family history of Alzheimer's disease, so he volunteered for a study at the UT Southwestern Alzheimer's Disease Center. The decision has changed his life.
More on Alzheimer's
- NIH researchers have developed a drug that reduces two substances that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease in people at risk for developing the disorder.
- For the first time, activities like reading, writing, and playing games have been associated with lower levels of a substance connected to Alzheimer's disease, suggesting a protective effect of such activities.
- Researchers recently found that a drug originally developed for treating a type of skin cancer worked to clear a brain protein called amyloid beta that is a culprit in Alzheimer's disease.
Better Brain Blueprints
NIH is supporting researchers to map connections in the brain in high definition. Understanding these connections promises better diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders. Researchers are searching for drugs that protect brain cells and ways to treat brain disorders through gene therapy. "On a scale never before attempted, this highly coordinated effort will use state-of-the-art imaging instruments, analysis tools, and informatics technologies — and all of the resulting data will be freely shared," said the director of the NIH Connectome initiative.
The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research is a cooperative effort among the NIH Office of the Director and the 15 NIH Institutes and Centers that supports research on the nervous system.
Vets with Brain Injuries
NIH-funded research found that veterans who experience blast-related head injuries can develop the same kind of long-term brain damage seen in athletes who’ve had multiple head injuries.
More than 1 million people sustain a brain injury in the U.S. each year, many during sports such as football. Among its traumatic brain injury-related efforts, the NIH is working to prevent traumatic brain injury through new technologies such as a helmet-testing method that mimics real game play.
What are the signs of stroke, risk factors, and treatments?
NIH research has found that stroke patients who received a certain medication within a few hours of the start of stroke symptoms were more likely to recover with little or no disability. NIH works to raise public awareness of the importance of calling 911 at any of the signs of stroke.
NIH Makes Progress in Parkinson’s Disease Research
NIH-funded researchers have figured out how to reprogram skin cells from people with Parkinson's disease into the nerve cells that die in this disease, making an important step toward cell replacement treatments.
“Before me, there were hundreds and thousands of other people with Parkinson’s who participated in clinical trials that gave me the ability to have the medications that I take today. If people today do not participate in clinical trials, there will be no cure. There will be no new medications. They will be no help for people in the future.”
Dr. Story Landis Discusses NIH Brain Research
The director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke overviews brain research at NIH. We know that the brain is an amazing biological machine central to many chronic diseases including addiction, mental illness, and movement disorders.
NIH continues to push forward with the development of new therapies, including neuroprotective drugs, gene therapy, and stem cells, to address problems such as traumatic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease.
Peering Inside the Brain
A close-up of healthy neurons — building blocks of the nervous system.
More than 150 NIH labs from 11 Institutes conduct research on the brain. NIH supports research on more than 600 neurological diseases. NIH-funded researchers found that the most common form of malignant brain cancer in adults actually has four molecular subtypes, which could lead to more personalized approaches to treating this cancer.
Dr. Alan Guttmacher, Director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), talks about how NIH-funded researchers investigate dozens of conditions that affect children from before birth through adolescence to promote their health and well-being.
NIH researchers are dedicated to promoting children's health in many ways, such as:
- Tackling childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in children ages 2 to 5 in the past 30 years.
- Exploring the causes and cures of autism, which affects approximately 1 out of 100 U.S. children.
- Helping reduce infant death rates in the United States, which have dropped more than 70% in the past 40 years.
- Promoting advances that have nearly eliminated certain causes of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A researcher with decades of experience explains what’s going on inside the brains of kids and teens — and how parents can help.
“This learning by example is very powerful, and parents are teaching even when they don't realize they are teaching, just by how they handle everyday aspects of their lives … how they manage their time and their emotions. This is how most of the teaching is done…. It’s the everyday moments that really have a huge impact on how the brain forms and adapts.”
Hearing loss can take a toll on a child's intellectual and social development. Thanks in part to NIH-funded research, more than 25,000 U.S. children have cochlear implants, a device that mimics the function of inner ear cells.
In addition to conducting research, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders provides information on hearing screening, hearing aids, and other topics for parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.
Nature and Nurture
For the first time, researchers will study a large number of children from before birth through age 21. The National Children’s Study will explore the effects of genes and many aspects of environment on growth, development, and health.
NIH provides several public education campaigns to help families raise healthy children, including Milk Matters, which helps build strong bones, and We Can!, which promotes healthy eating and exercise. The Safe to Sleep campaign has helped reduce the rate of sudden infant death syndrome by more than 50%.
Oral health problems can cause children pain and lead to poor school performance, unhealthy eating, and hard-to-treat infections.
Thanks to NIH research, fluoride in water helps protect children’s teeth. In a recent advance, NIH-funded researchers created a liquid coating that is applied to teeth and releases fluoride over several months to prevent tooth decay. To learn more about oral health, visit the website of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
Preventing Birth Defects
NIH-supported researchers made a leap forward in preventing neural tube defects, which can cause major disabilities. They found that a woman consuming enough folic acid while pregnant prevents most of these defects.
A groundbreaking technique created with funding from NIH changed the life of a young girl born with a heart defect. Want to learn more? Watch this video about healing a child’s heart.
NIH researchers have worked for decades to understand a developmental condition that affects thousands of families. Research now indicates that both genetics and environment contribute to autism.
- Have identified several genes linked to autism risk.
- Are working to decode the complete genomes of people with autism to better understand and treat it.
- Are exploring factors that may raise the risk of autism, such as taking certain medications during pregnancy.
Such work is supported by 8 Institutes, including the following:
Inside the Brain
Brain imaging shows how brain development in children with autism differs from that of other children.
Comparing brain images of children with autism to those without it may help pinpoint when and where the disorder begins. It also can help researchers understand how to slow or stop its symptoms. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is one NIH Institute that studies autism.
Early Interventions Launch Successful Lives
NIH-funded researchers discovered the importance of early detection and treatment of autism. They also helped establish tools for early diagnosis and a number of effective therapies.
NIH researchers have made great progress in identifying and understanding autism. Scientists now believe that autism is a spectrum disorder, with a range of types and traits.
All children with autism, though, deserve excellent early care. NIH researchers helped establish a checklist for health care providers that allows for effective early diagnosis.
Now, a 5-minute checklist that parents can fill out in pediatrician waiting rooms may some day help in early diagnosis, according to an NIH-funded study.
NIH-supported researchers bred mice with traits of autism to greatly improve our understanding of autism and brain development. Brain images show differences between a specially bred mouse and a wild one.
NIH researchers have managed to reverse behaviors in mice that are similar to two of the three main symptoms of autism disorders. The researchers gave an experimental medication to mice who have autism-like behaviors. The treated mice increased their social interactions and lessened their repetitive behaviors. This information may lead to treatments for humans.
Research at Work
People participate in autism research to help others — and their own families.
Researchers now can use data from over 10,000 participants in autism studies.
Research in Action
An NIH-funded brain and tissue bank:
- Provided researchers with more than 26,000 samples from people with autism and other developmental conditions.
- Assisted more than 700 scientists working on autism.
- Led to more than 60 published studies on autism.
NIH has created 8 Centers of Excellence in Autism Research across the country. This network allows researchers at many different facilities to work together to tackle a single research question. Five NIH Institutes, including the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, support the Centers.
The HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation” reflects years of NIH research that has shaped our understanding of obesity — and its dangerous complications. NIH researchers contributed to the creation of the 4-part series.
NIH is working on ways to prevent and treat obesity and related conditions through more than 20 Institutes, Centers, and Offices.
More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, and approximately 17% of Americans ages 2 to 19 also carry excess weight. Obesity increases the likelihood of many serious health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. NIH programs work to teach families how to fight obesity. From tip sheets on portion control to classes on working out, there’s something for all ages and sizes.
NIH obesity-prevention programs include:
- We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity and Nutrition), which prepares parents and caregivers to help young people stay a healthy weight.
- Media-Smart Youth: Eat, Think, and Be Active!, a curriculum that helps young people think critically about the media’s influence on their food and physical activity choices.
- The Weight-control Information Network (WIN), which offers information in English and Spanish on topics such as weight control while quitting smoking.
A Strategy for Results
NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins discusses how the Institute plans to tackle the obesity epidemic—from understanding genes to influencing environments—to protect the health of millions of Americans.
“The National Institutes of Health is determined to take the resources that we have been given by the taxpayers, and learn everything we can about this epidemic in order to turn it around. We aim to be no less than completely innovative, ambitious, bold, and creative in generating the evidence that will get the answers that lead to a better future.”
The higher a person's BMI, the greater the risk for health problems. But what, exactly, is BMI? BMI — or Body Mass Index — is a way to estimate a person’s body fat. If you know your weight and your height, you can find out your BMI by accessing the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) online BMI calculator. Keep in mind that:
- Normal weight = 18.5-24.9
- Overweight = 25.0-29.9
- Obese = 30.0 and above
The NHLBI BMI calculator receives 1.6 million visitors a month and ranks #1 on Google.
Obesity and Pregnancy
NIH researchers discovered a link between being obese during pregnancy and health problems in children.
One study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that obesity increases a woman’s chance of giving birth to a child with a heart defect by around 15%. Another study found a connection between maternal obesity and neural tube defects, in which the brain or spinal column does not form correctly.
NIH — and you — can help protect children from obesity.
In a $49.5 million, long-term childhood obesity study, NIH-funded researchers will explore multiple influences on children’s weight, including schools and families. Other studies look at the role of genes in weight.
A Devastating Disease
NIH-funded research showed that depression is a disorder of the brain. A video from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes depression symptoms, treatment, and research—and one man’s climb up from despair.
More than 1 out of 20 Americans 12 years of age and older report current depression. There are different types of depression, and different populations — men, women, and older people, for example — may show different signs of the disease.
Although depression hurts, treatment works. Unfortunately, only about half of Americans diagnosed with major depression in a given year receive treatment for it, according to NIH-funded research. The National Institute of Mental Health provides information on getting help for depression.
Most teens with major depression benefit from long-term treatment, an NIH-funded study found. Researchers also found that a combination of antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a type of talk therapy, worked best.
NIH-funded researchers studied 19,000 teens and found that girls who engaged in risky activity had an increased risk of symptoms of depression. For example, girls who experimented with drugs were more than twice as likely to have depression symptoms as girls who did not. Read more about teens and depression.
Depression and New Moms
After giving birth, hormonal and physical changes and the new responsibility of caring for an infant can be overwhelming. Researchers now understand much more about post-partum depression, including that it often goes undetected.
Each year in the United States, approximately half a million women are at risk of developing postpartum depression. Older women and teenage girls face their own risks of depression. Learn more about women and depression from the National Institute of Mental Health, and watch a video about post-partum depression.
Depression affects a person’s health, work, and relationships—and the people around them. For example, children of depressed moms performed more poorly on language and other skills at age 3 than other children, research shows.
Depression takes a physical toll. It increases the risk of heart disease, for example, as well as the chances of someone dying after heart attack. NIMH provides information on depression and heart disease.
Researchers are studying how antidepressants work, who benefits most from them, and ways to make better ones. They also have successfully treated depression with brain stimulation techniques.
This page last reviewed on October 8, 2015