Dr. Bruce Troen often says that if you want to live a long life, you should choose your parents wisely.
That’s good news for Kathy Clerkin, whose mom died a decade ago at age 98, followed by her father, two years later, at 101.
Still, at 75, Clerkin hardly relies solely on her genetics when it comes to her own longevity.
The retired Mercy Hospital nurse, who lives alone in an apartment at a West Seneca development, works out six mornings a week at the Southtowns Family YMCA. She delivers Meals on Wheels every Monday. She belongs to three hiking clubs.
She also leads an active social life.
All that, she figures, will help put more life in her years, regardless of the number of years in her life.
“You keep busy every day,” she said, “and you wonder what you did when you worked.”
The University at Buffalo Center for Successful Aging wants to help create a lot more Kathy Clerkins. The fledgling effort involves bringing UB healthy aging research off the benchtop and out of the clinical setting, and into daily living in the region.
It began to bubble up about two years ago in Troen’s office at the UB Clinical Translational Science Institute, perched on the floors above the Gates Vascular Institute on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
It has since grown into an effort that involves almost 50 researchers representing 19 UB departments and a dozen schools within the university – including the medical school, Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease, departments of physical therapy and occupational therapy, and schools of architecture and planning, engineering, law, nursing, and social work.
“UB, like many large institutions, has a lot of expertise that is siloed,” said Troen, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine in the UB Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, who came to the school in the spring of 2013 and leads the center. “That is detrimental to the innovation that can occur when you have good collaboration. What really works best is team science.”
The vision for the center includes:
- A clinical brick-and-mortar location that supports aging-related research.
- Education and mentoring at UB and elsewhere, including helping others develop healthier community settings and workplaces.
- Spurring more collaboration across the region among those who serve older residents.
Its leaders already have started to work with Age Friendly Erie County, the Buffalo City Office on Aging, and the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.
“Buffalo is a great size for remedying fragmentation,” said Danielle Pelfrey Duryea, associate aging center director and assistant dean for interprofessional education and health law initiatives in the UB School of Law. “Our goal is to be a model for how a university and community can collaborate to make major change to quality of life and well-being in a region.”
The ultimate aim: extend both the healthspan and lifespan, and bring them more closely together for all.
“It’s about understanding what the instrumental activities of daily living are,” Troen said. “If we were to make Buffalo the best place for people to get older, for people to retire, it will be the best place for everybody.”
Meanwhile, three research projects help explain where the Center for Successful Aging looks to go.
About 10 percent of Americans have mild cognitive impairment by the time they reach age 65. That grows to about 50 percent do by age 85, Troen said.
That's why Ardenia Gildersleeve, Ruby Johnson and Bessie Lee Thomas regularly visit the aerobics room at the William-Emslie YMCA.
All have friends and older family members touched by dementia.
“That scares me,” said Gildersleeve, 71, who, like Thomas, 67, retired several years ago after working four decades at General Mills. They and Johnson, 70, are among almost 40 older members at the East Side Y who agreed in 2016 to participate in a UB research program that continues
Once or twice a week, participants use a Smartfit Trainer system which can muster more than 80 games using a large black screen and nine touch-sensitive square panels set at various heights. In one game, a sort of version of whack-a-mole, each woman put her right foot atop a mid-sized medicine ball as she tapped smiling faces (targets) amid frowning ones that moved haphazardly across the nine panels. They used swimming pool noodles, one in each hand, to register points over a minute.
After several rounds, they were exhausted.
“I didn’t want to get into the habit of not coming,” said Thomas, who recently had knee surgery and has lost 10 pounds during the research.
“These games are fantastic for engaging the body and the brain at the same time,” said Nikhil Satchidanand, an exercise physiologist and assistant professor in the UB medical school. “The whole purpose is that dual task activity can create an environment that is fun and engaging and dynamic – and is scientifically rigorous and proven.”
He and fellow researchers soon will ask participants to wear “functional near-infrared spectroscopy” wireless headgear, a non-invasive way to examine changes in blood flow in the brain during exercise and other daily activities. This will help them learn more about which activities most affect cognition.
MICE AND OLD MEN
Kenneth Seldeen conducts his UB research on mice, which go through their lifespan in two or three years – dramatically narrowing the window on the exploration of healthy aging. A 2-year-old mouse is similar in physiology to a person who is 65 to 70.
“We’re trying to model the concept of frailty,” said Seldeen, research assistant professor with UB medical school.
There are five parameters to human frailty: unexpected weight loss over the course of a year, low grip strength, low gait speed, low activity levels and low endurance. Those with three or more deficits are considered frail.
Seldeen is studying the impact of high-intensity interval training on older mice. Recent training involved mice of various ages doing regular moderate to high-intensity work on a treadmill for several minutes over several months. Six of the mice which participated were pre-frail or frail. At end of the study, five improved, including one which became robust, Seldeen said.
He, Troen and other researchers will soon undertake a similar study at the Geriatric Evaluation Management (GEM) Clinic with patient volunteers at the Buffalo Veterans Administration Medical Center. If they see good results, they can share them with others who work with seniors.
Frailty increases the risk of sickness, disease and infection. Hospital stays tend to be longer and more frequent as quality of life decreases.
“This is a major health issue as we get older,” Troen said. “We want people to be as functionally capable as possible, even in the setting of disease, for as long as they can live.”
SMALL CELLS, BIG PICTURE
Troen and another researcher also have spent the last 18 months studying how cell development impacts aging.
Dr. Jessica Reynolds, a research associate professor in the UB medical school, is leading the effort to determine how nanoparticles called exosomes influence grip strength, one of the indicators of frailty. They are using serum samples periodically taken over 15 years as part of a national Women’s Health Initiative. Research participants include women 65 and older in the region who have gone through menopause.
“In order to most effectively tailor strategies to successfully age, you’d like to know particular risks for individuals,” Troen said, and this research may help.
Troen said center-related research will help provide data to create the best practices for successful aging.
That works for Clerkin, the retired nurse. Her top three top tips for healthy aging? “Eating fairly healthy, keeping active and having a good outlook on life.”
She shares the same worries of many her age: The desire to leave an inheritance to her daughter and grandchildren, tempered with the concern she one day may need expensive assisted living or nursing home care. Losing her memory or becoming dependent on others.
Still, she knows her days are numbered. She has prepared, including with a living will and health care proxy.
Meanwhile, she will spend her days with family, friends, fellow hikers and members of the Hillcrest Seniors in Orchard Park. She will take advantage of her low-cost YMCA membership, thanks the BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York SilverSneakers program. And, when she needs a welcome break, she will walk in Chestnut Ridge Park.
“Walking gets rid of the cobwebs in your head,” she said. “It clears your mind of all the bad stuff and worries. I think it’s better than any medicine.”
Dr. Yu-Ping Chang, associate dean for research & scholarship in the University at Buffalo School of Nursing, and co-director of the UB Center for Successful Aging, offered the following tips for putting more life into your golden years.
Be physically active. Doing regular physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia.
Stimulate your brain. Learn a second (or third, or fourth) language.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Limit sugar intake – consume more fruits – and drink raw fruit and vegetable juices
Maintain a healthy weight
Keep alcohol to a minimum
Keep blood pressure at a healthy level
Sleep better. Adults need at least seven or eight hours each night.
Reduce stress. Make time for activities such as meditation or yoga which can help stress management and improve emotional health.
Learn early dementia and Alzheimer's symptoms. Early detection is the key to slowing the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
For more information about dementia, and support for those who believe they have it and their caregivers, visit alz.org/WNY or call the Alzheimer’s Association of Western New York at 800-272-3900.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon