Social factors in aging need attention, asserts award-winning provost

Joe Hendricks, the founding dean of OSU’s Honors College and a nationally-known social gerontologist, has won the most prestigious, international-in-scope award of the Gerontological Society of America.

Hendricks, who now serves as interim associate provost for International Programs, will receive the 2008 Kleemeier Award Nov. 23 for the impact of his research in the field of aging.

Joe Hendricks

Joe Hendricks, OSU associate provost, earns top gerontological award.

Hendricks introduced the idea of “chaos theory” to social gerontology in the mid-1990s by proposing that aging is not a linear function but an increasingly dynamic one that results in unpredictable change.

“Joe’s work is one of the very few most creative and original contributions in the field,” said Toni Calasani of Virginia Tech in nominating Hendricks for the award.

His work on that and other elements of gerontological research, including reaching out to other sections of the field for more interdisciplinary collaboration, also earned him the 2004 Tibbitts Award from the Association of Gerontology in Higher Education, the highest honor in that field, Calasani said.

Challenges facing the modern study of aging are both socially created and inaccurately biased toward the medical field, Hendricks said.

Medical genetics accounts for only 25 per cent of the factors that determine what happens as people age, he said. Empirical evidence shows that 75 percent of predictions for aging involve social factors, he said.

“Unfortunately, we’ve medicalized everything: a pill for every ill,” he said.

Public policy and social norms affect individuals’ self-concepts, which affect how they age, the OSU sociology professor said. Even the definition of 65 as the threshold of “old age” is a social construct determines the time orientation toward the future for many people.

“Our lifestyles and health status nationwide is near the bottom of the top quartile when it could be at the top,” Hendricks said. “We need to attend to these patterns, to unravel them, to identify the challenges so we can better intervene and improve the lives of people.”

Hendricks will receive his honor in Washington, D.C., where the 7,000-member society is headquartered. Presenting the award lecture this year will be the 2007 winner, Rita B. Effros of UCLA, whose mentor won the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1996.  The Kleemeier Award presentation is regarded as the highpoint of the annual meetings.

“So I’m in pretty good company,” Hendricks quipped. “This is quite something for me.”

Hendricks came to OSU 20 years ago from the University of Kentucky, where he had a joint appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine.

His textbook, “Aging and Mass Society,” was the first in gerontology geared at upper division classes.

He is especially proud of his work in establishing the Honors College at OSU in 1995. It is one of only 12 degree-granting colleges of its kind in the U.S., and the credentials of its students rank seventh in the U.S. News and World Report listing.

The college has become a “destination for the best and the brightest” in Oregon, including the 20 percent of the enrollment that comes from minority groups in Portland, Hendricks said.

“There’s a real responsibility on us to live up to their expectations because they are investing their futures on us,” he said.

~ by Ed Curtin

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