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Richard J. Hodes Is at War With Dementia

M.D., Director of the National Institute on Aging

N I H Director of the National Institute on Aging Doctor Richard Hodes

Stephen Voss

Responsibilities: Leads the institute that supports and conducts genetic, biological, clinical, behavioral, social and economic research to understand the aging process and diseases and conditions associated with growing older. Directs the federal effort to find effective ways to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Md., is the fourth largest of its 27 institutes and centers. NIA has an annual budget of $3.08 billion, 451 employees and 209 trainees.

Current priorities: NIA supports some 140 ongoing clinical trials focused on Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Some of the “changes in the brain that are typical of Alzheimer’s dementia can occur 20 and 25 years before symptoms appear,” Hodes says, “and knowing this, a lot of the research we’re doing involves studying people at these earlier stages when they have no symptoms.” The agency has funded studies examining genetics, basic mechanisms, imaging and biomarkers that have spurred the development of potential therapies. But Hodes acknowledges the “tragic failure” to date to find an effective way to treat and prevent Alzheimer’s, which affects 5.8 million Americans, a number expected to climb dramatically unless effective treatments are developed.

At A Glance

Age: 75

Hometown: New York, N.Y.

Time in office: Appointed in June 1993

Personal: Married, with one daughter, a school psychologist

Background: A leading researcher in immunology, Hodes studied chemistry and psychology at Yale and graduated summa cum laude in 1965. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1971. During medical school he was a research fellow in tumor biology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, which selects the Nobel laureates in medicine and physiology. After a medical residency, Hodes worked for 20 years at the National Cancer Institute at NIH before taking the helm at NIA. He works long hours — six days a week — and most mornings toils in a lab at the cancer institute, researching the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate the body’s immune response. Hodes carves out time to hit the gym and, four times a week, gets on a stationary bike for 26 minutes of high-intensity interval training. Away from work, Hodes is a gardener who cultivates vegetables.

What he says:

On aging: It’s a privilege denied to many and a privilege that can be earned by taking advantage of all that we do know about the right things to do for health and quality of life.

His advice for a long, healthy life: Exercise your body (doing both aerobic activities and strength or resistance training) and your brain. Watch your weight, following a diet low in saturated fats and the right balance of protein. Don’t smoke. Control hypertension and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Stay connected to others.

On “exceptional agers” who live longest: They are either resisters or resilient. Resisters manage to avoid serious maladies such as cardiac disease. The resilient have had disease but survived with a high level of functioning. “We learn from both of those examples,” Hodes says.

What people are saying:

“Dr. Hodes has done a remarkable job running the National Institute on Aging,” says Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that helps set NIA’s budget. “He has the wonderful skill of making complex research understandable … and has provided me thoughtful advice over the years.”

“He was so well trained and innovative that I knew he would expand our definition of aging and bring an interdisciplinary focus, and that’s exactly what he did,” says Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who was secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services when Hodes took NIA’s reins. “I think he’s done a world-class job.”

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