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UI looks to enhance study of aging, ‘brain drain’

BY SAM LANE | APRIL 15, 2010 7:30 AM

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From the sweeping cornfields of Iowa to Minnesota’s lakes to the rolling prairies of the Dakotas, populations across the Midwest have at least one thing in common: They’re getting older.

As the disappearance of young people becomes a pressing issue in the Midwest, the University of Iowa and its Center on Aging are aiming to become prominent leaders in the study of aging populations.

UI Provost Wallace Loh announced the creation of a new interdisciplinary cluster last week in the topic of “Aging in the Heartland.” One of the motives for the move, he said, is the departure of young people Iowa has seen in recent years.

Officials in states such as Iowa worried about a phenomenon called the brain drain, the mass departure of thousands of degree-wielding young people.

When educated 20-somethings migrate from Iowa, the state is left with an older population. Worse, government reports indicate brain drain leaves Iowa with fewer high-paying jobs.

The UI will create 14 new positions focused on the research of aging with the new hiring program.

Loh said those new faculty are some of the 100 new tenure-track positions the UI has committed to creating in the next five years.

“I think it’s going to have a really important effect on teaching aging on campus,” said Robert Wallace, the director of the UI Center on Aging. “We have to make sure there’s a component to directly help older citizens in Iowa and the Midwest.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Iowa attracts more college students than any other state in the Midwest.

However, Iowa has had one of the worst brain-drain rates in the nation since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. From 1995 to 2000, around 19,500 such people left the state.

The population left behind is among the oldest in the region. In 2000, while about 12.5 percent of all Americans were at least 65, almost 15 percent of Iowans were 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And by 2020, that population in Iowa is expected to grow close to 20 percent, while the U.S. percentage is expected to hover just above 15 percent.

Lisa Skemp, a UI associate professor of nursing, said brain drain frequently occurs in the health profession.

At the UI, Skemp said the Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence is nationally renowned for teaching health professionals on the care of older people.

“With the [Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence], we have an excellent system here for preparing faculty and students in gerontology,” Skemp said. “However, they’re heavily recruited to go elsewhere.”

While brain drain is perhaps most pertinent to Midwest communities, the issue has garnered nationally attention as well. The National Institute on Aging donates more than $1 billion annually to aging research.

“The [National Institute on Aging] leads the national effort to understand the nature of aging,” said Barbara Cire, a senior public affairs specialist at the institute. “Aging is a vital part of life — a vital stage of life. We want to help people live as healthily as they can for as long possible.”

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