With institutional roots dating back over 50 years, the Institute of Gerontology (IOG) at UGA’s College of Public Health (CPH) is at the forefront of aging research, and as the first baby boomers begin to retire and hit ‘old age,’ faculty at the IOG seek to reframe what it means to age.
Positive healthy aging drives the Institute’s research agenda, says Glenn Ostir, who came on board as the Institute’s new director two years ago.
“We want to help older adults thrive as they age,” he said, “and that involves understanding the biological, psychological, and social factors that impact a person’s experience.”
You Are What You Eat
Lisa Renzi-Hammond can predict how your brain will hold up to the effects of aging just by taking a look into your eyes. Her research has shown that eye health, cognition and diet are closely linked.
Recently, Renzi-Hammond, assistant professor in the department of psychology, and her team, found that older adults who consumed more lutein and zeaxanthin, compounds found in dark leafy greens like spinach, saw a boost in their brain function.
“This work illustrates that we really are what we eat,” said Renzi-Hammond. “You need new, raw material all the time, and parts of whatever you just ate are going to end up in your brain, literally.”
The next step, said Renzi-Hammond, is figuring out how to encourage people to eat more lutein-rich foods, like greens, yellow squash and mango because putting these foods on your plate may be one way to protect your brain against decline.
To Renzi-Hammond this message is empowering. “It’s the ability to say ‘I can eat differently and do something meaningful to keep myself functioning at peak condition for as long as I can.’”
Renzi-Hammond is currently working on several new projects that she hopes will illuminate more ways to maintain a healthy brain as we age.
The Future is Now
Jenay Beer, CPH assistant professor, is researching how robots and other assistive technologies can help us maintain healthy, independent lifestyles as we age.
“Household robots, such as Rosie from the Jetsons, were once dreams of Hollywood filmmakers. Technological advances are now making household robots a very real possibility — although they may look and behave a bit different than Rosie,” Beer wrote recently.
But developing assistive robots is harder than it seems. At the heart of every artificial intelligence advance is a human programming the device, which means engineers need to be asking questions like, “how should robots interact and communicate with us?”
For older people, who may be experiencing cognitive decline or physical impairments, these questions are particularly important.
Beer also points out that robots should not be considered the “solution” to the looming workforce gap many health care experts foresee once boomers begin needing more age-related health services. Robots won’t replace caregivers, for example, but anticipating how a robot could support a caregiver should be on the minds of developers, Beer says.
Her current project is testing how a socially assistive robot can aid persons with dementia who live in an assisted living facility.
Keeping Up Connections
Over the last decade, public health professionals have begun to recognize the importance of social networks to a person’s mental and physical health. Loneliness has been the focus of Kerstin Gerst Emerson’s research for the last four years.
Loneliness can affect anyone, but older people are particular vulnerable, says Emerson, CPH clinical assistant professor. Studies estimate that nearly 1 in 3 older adults are lonely in the U.S., which can lead to real mental health issues, as well as a range of physical ones.
“People are actually more likely to die prematurely if they’re lonely, and it’s comparable to other risk factors we talk about all the time like smoking or not exercising,” said Emerson.
Emerson’s work has characterized the scope of the public health problem, and she has been a vocal advocate for organizations in Athens that work to help older adults maintain social ties, like the local Meals on Wheels program.
Individuals can help a friend, family member or neighbor who may be lonely by simply interacting with them. It’s a simple intervention, says Emerson, yet a very effective one.
At the Vanguard
With more innovative studies in the works, the IOG faculty is poised to contribute to new knowledge to help older Americans live a longer and healthier life.