Mayan woman. (Credit: Murray Foubister/Wikimedia Commons)

Many physiological and psychological systems interact to make an elderly person resilient — that is, able to withstand or recover from injury or illness over time. How to understand these systems, and how to make sense of a large volume of new data about the aging process, are the guiding questions for the November SFI working group, “Dynamic Multi-System Resilience in Human Aging.”

Led by Marcel Olde Rikkert, the chair of geriatric medicine at Radboud University Medical Center, and his colleagues, the working group is part of SFI’s research theme on Aging, Adaptation, and the Arrow of Time supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

Traditionally, the aging process has been understood through the more static measure of “frailty,” which offers just a one-time risk assessment of an elderly person. But recent increases in data mean that the time is ripe to view them through a complexity science lens for a richer understanding of the multidimensional, dynamic factors that contribute to resilience as we age.

“We now know that aging is more dynamic and changing over time,” Rikkert says. So, “we need dynamic measures that take into account changes in elderly people.”

Specifically, the increase in wearable technology means there is now more health data than ever. Smartwatches and other devices can now measure heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and activity on an ongoing basis. In contrast, traditional methods that rely on volunteered participants are exclusionary, as people who cannot travel to medical centers to be monitored cannot participate. Moreover, they often rely on self-reported data — about, for example, levels of physical activity — and offer only occasional opportunities for measurement. With wearables, people can participate as they might in a traditional medical study, in that they are the owners of their data and can volunteer to share it with researchers, like one might give blood or be an organ donor, but the data are higher quality, richer, and produced in an ongoing manner. At the same time, complexity science tools, including multi-system and computational modeling techniques, offer new possibilities for making sense of all this new information to better understand the resilience of aging humans.

The November meeting convenes researchers from gerontology and other clinical areas of medicine with physicists, ecologists, biologists, and others who have a background in resilience. It will mark the beginning of a new kind of research in the study of aging and represent the first effort to form a network of scientists across disciplines thinking about these issues, with much research and collaboration to follow.

Read more about the "Dynamic Multi-System Resilience in Aging" working group.