REACT! Study, Round 2, comes to a close

The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute on Aging wrapped up their second round of the Rhythm Experience and Africana Culture Trial (REACT!) on Monday, October 9, 2017.

The trial concluded with a celebratory award ceremony which included readings, art presentations, and a dance performance by the study participants. Dara Meekins, REACT! Study Coordinator, kicked off the ceremony with a welcome speech describing the importance and impact of this clinical trial. “This study was developed to investigate a culturally important form of physical activity that could enhance the neurocognitive health and physical and emotional well-being of older African Americans,” explained Dara. “Prior studies have shown promising effects of physical activity, but REACT! specifically seeks to provide a fun, engaging, and broadly translatable platform for reducing the health disparities that currently exist for older African Americans.”

Not all clinical trials are as pleasant and many require a variety of unfavorable medical procedures or testing. “I think this study shows you that if you don’t want to be probed or prodded with needles, we can still use your help,” says Dara.


Lewis Reddick, REACT! education group participant, is a perfect example of the many ways this study is bettering the lives of older African Americans. “This program has let me know about things that I still can do that I thought I couldn’t, such as my reading and writing,” he explained. “I couldn’t write the way I used to, I couldn’t read the way I used to… and [this study] got me started again and it has inspired me to maybe even go back to school!”

Mr. Reddick also expressed his praise and appreciation for Dara and the rest of the REACT! team, including Samuel Gorka, study coordinator, as well as several student interns. “Everyone was kind and we had a great time!” he said. “I looked forward to everyday that I came!”

Below are some highlights from the REACT! Dance Group’s wonderful performance led by African Dance Instructor, Yattah Jones! Their performance is set to the sounds of African Conga drums and tells a story of celebration, life, vitality, harvest & rebirth through a fusion of Afro-Caribbean dance styles.

REACT! is an Alzheimer’s Association-funded research study being conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh).

Learn more about the REACT! Study here.


Meet F. Bradley Johnson, MD, PhD: New IOA Associate Director!

johnson-brad.11052The Institute on Aging (IOA) at the University of Pennsylvania is pleased to introduce our new Associate Director, F. Bradley Johnson, MD, PhD!

In addition to this new title, Dr. Johnson is also an Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. His research is focused primarily on the biologies of telomeres, genome stability, and cellular senescence, and how they impact age-related diseases. Dr. Johnson’s clinical duties include serving as Assistant Director of the Clinical Immunology Laboratory at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he helps oversee tests facilitating solid organ and bone marrow transplantation. Related to these clinical activities, he is also investigating roles for the major histocompatibility complex in the regulation of RNA biology and Alzheimer’s disease.

Prior to joining the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine here at Penn, Dr. Johnson earned his MD and a PhD in biochemistry from Stanford Medical School in 1995, followed by a residency in clinical pathology at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School and postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Read Dr. Johnson’s full bio here.

Learn more about Dr. Johnson’s research interests and plans for the IOA in our Q&A here!

Q: How did you first get involved with the Institute on Aging?

A: I first learned about the IOA form John Trojanowski and Virginia Lee when I was interviewing for faculty positions back in 2001. The fact that Penn had such a well-established and active aging institute was one of the key features that attracted me to join the university.

Q: What goals do you hope to achieve as the new Associate Director?

A: First, I hope to learn more from current IOA leaders, particularly John Trojanowski and Kathy Jedrziewski, about how they run things, and where they see problems and opportunities for growth. Second, I’d like to see how we might enhance interactions among people studying features of aging at Penn in disciplines that have traditionally been considered separate. We have a remarkable breadth of expertise, and an unusually collegial environment, so there are many opportunities for cooperation. Finally, I’d like to expand our efforts to inform the public about new findings in gerontology, and to involve them in debates on related issues.

Q: How has your thinking about aging changed over the years?

A: Quite a bit. I first began to wonder about how aging happens when I was a young kid. Some of my great-grandparents and grandparents were lucky enough to live to exceptional ages with few health problems and I wondered what explained their good fortune. My mom’s mom’s mom, who i got to know well, was given a ceremonial cane by the town government in recognition of her 100th birthday, and the newspaper reported her remark that what she’d really have enjoyed was a motorcycle and that upon leaving the ceremony she carried the cane in a fashion that conspicuously avoided it touching the floor! At the same time, other family members and older friends were suffering from various age-related problems, and it started to become apparent to me how much aging increases the risk of many different diseases and, ultimately, death. As a kid, it was the death aspect that really got my attention, but as I came to recognize and accept the transient nature of all things, I became increasingly motivated by the idea that the more that people understand how aging works, the better we can minimize its negative impacts. I thought aging would be a great problem to tackle – to me it’s a manifestation of the very human drive to improve the situation of oneself and others, and I thought (and still think) it’s a good bet that the more people can understand and slow aspects of aging, the more we can enhance wellbeing.
Even by the time I got to college and graduate school, in the mid 1980s, aging was still broadly considered to be something that was fundamentally unalterable, because it was thought to be a simple manifestation of entropy – in other words, just like any complex system, biological molecules, and tissues have a tendency to fall apart over time. For a number of reasons, this viewpoint never made sense to me, and indeed it started to become apparent from studies in model organisms in the 1990s that simple genetic or dietary interventions could dramatically extend lifespan which, importantly, was accompanied by improved health overall. For my postdoctoral work, I was fortunate to join Lenny Guarente’s lab at MIT because it was genuinely focused on investigating the molecular genetics of aging. It was a stimulating and fun environment, and the early successes in the field at the time raised hopes that aging might not be so hard to understand and control. Today, I believe aging is in fact complicated – it involves lots of little problems that affect different people to various extents, and which can sum into bigger problems. All of these problems can be addressed in principal, and indeed great strides are being made, but there’s no single “magic bullet.” Mostly, I think of aging as something that changes individual strengths and weaknesses over time. I hope that by understanding more about how aging works, we can expand the tools available for people to use as they wish to enhance their own happiness.

Q: What do you find most interesting and/or challenging about the field of aging?

A: Worldwide, people are living to older ages than ever before.  This is because we’ve made progress in solving many of the problems that have plagued people for most of our history – especially starvation, infectious disease, political instability and violence, and, more recently, cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Therefore aging has become one of the ultimate barriers to physical health.  You can do everything possible to follow a healthy lifestyle, and if – like most people these days, you avoid death by things like automobile accidents, natural disasters or violence – you will get old, likely get sick, and will most certainly die.   Aging is now the biggest risk factor for most of the diseases that still affect us.  The challenge now is to understand the details of how aging does this so as to minimize disease.

Q: What do you think are the most important issues that need to be addressed in the area of aging right now? And how, if at all, do you see this evolving in the next several years?

A: One important issue is to extend the successes the aging research community has had in model organisms, e.g. flies and mice, to human biology.    It’s become apparent that there are some conserved mechanisms impacting aging, that is, there are biological processes that operate similarly in different species to regulate the pace of aging.  However, aging mechanisms are freer to vary between species than many other biological mechanisms, because they evolve due to a decline in the force of natural selection as individuals get older (this is because these mechanisms are manifest after genes have already been passed on to offspring, and so the die is cast for genes that have negative impacts only later in life).  In other words, important aspects of aging will be different in different species, and so if we really want to understand how human aging works, we can’t rely solely on model organisms, and ultimately we have to study it in human systems.  Fortunately, the tools for doing this type of work are developing rapidly, e.g. growing human tissues in culture or using new bioinformatics tools to study the impact of natural human genetic variation on health, and thus there are many opportunities to make progress.

            Another challenge is to dispel negative perceptions of aging research.  When asked what he thought of Google’s new “immortality” spin-off company, called Calico, Bill Gates said, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer. It would be nice to live longer though, I admit.”  Gates is obviously a thoughtful and caring person, and I totally understand his point of view.  But it’s interesting to note that age is actually the biggest risk factor for dying from TB (tuberculosis) – because as the immune system weakens with age it allows for reactivation of latent TB infections.  Even in the case of malaria, which indeed primarily kills children, who frequently die upon their first infection because they are not yet immune, aging remains a big risk factor for dying from any subsequent infections.  Another concern frequently voiced is the potential for overpopulation, but this is a danger raised by aging research no more than from improvements in human health made possible by things like safe drinking water and antibiotics, and I don’t think we would seriously wish we hadn’t made those advances.  The bigger point is that the aging research community is not focused on immortality, but is rather aimed at using an understanding of aging to improve wellbeing.  I think this is in line with what innovators in the fields of science, medicine, and government have always tried to do.

            A third challenge is to address some of the hype surrounding things like “anti-aging” therapies.  I know from interactions with friends and family members that people are remarkably willing to spend resources on special foods, supplements, and other types of regimens that are advertised to slow or reverse aging.  In fact, Americans spend more money on these sorts of things than on the entire NIH budget!  Mostly these therapies are unproven, and are even potentially harmful, and I think organizations like the IOA can help people understand what really is known, what’s plausible, and what’s more likely to be snake oil.  On a more positive note, there really are some potential “anti-aging” therapies that have arisen from recent research, for example metformin, which is being studied in a clinical trial.  It will take time and effort to see if any of these therapies prove worthwhile for broadly protecting people from age-related diseases, but the only way to know is to do the work.

Q: You’ve received two separate IOA Pilot Awards as a Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI) in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2018. How has this pilot program helped to share or guide your career as a researcher?

A: My co-PIs and I are very grateful for the support we’ve received from the IOA pilot grant program.  This program is one of the most impactful functions of the IOA, because it helps provide seed money to explore high risk/high reward avenues of investigation, which if successful can be turned into more substantial support from outside sources.   For example Chris Lengner (at the Penn Vet School) and I received an IOA pilot in 2015 to study the possibility of treating the rare disease dyskeratosis congenita using a novel approach to improved telomere maintenance.  Things went well, and we have obtained NIH funding to continue our work, which we believe has implications for the treatment of not only dyskeratosis congenita but also certain age-related diseases found in the broader population, e.g. pulmonary fibrosis.    With a new IOA pilot, Dimitri Monos (at CHOP) and I are investigating connections between Alzheimer’s disease and a part of the human genome called the major histocompatibility complex, which plays important roles in the immune system.  We’re excited to see where these studies lead us.

Penn Medicine’s 6th Annual 5K for the IOA & Memory Mile Walk

It was a warm Fall morning on Sunday, September 24, 2017 as 371 runners and walkers and 70 volunteers gathered for Penn Medicine’s 6th Annual 5K for the IOA and Memory Mile Walk.

The fundraiser, which takes place throughout Penn Park and the University of Pennsylvania campus, raised a total of $49,260 this year for Alzheimer’s and aging-related disease research efforts at Penn’s Institute on Aging.

In addition to its usual run and walk, the event also included pre and post-race yoga sessions, entertainment provided by DeeJay007, and photobooth fun for the whole family. This year’s overall male winner, Alexis Tingan (pictured below, left), finished the race in 17 minutes and 35 seconds, with the overall female winner, Sara McCuaig (pictured below, right), not far behind him with a time of 19 minutes and 24 seconds.

To view the full list of race results, click here.

Last week, CBS Philly interviewed PJ Brennan, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Penn Medicine who created the event in memory of his father who lost his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. “I thought it would be a fun way to get my community here together and bring some attention to the work that the Institute on Aging does and raise some money for this novel research,” said Brennan during the interview.

To view more photos of the event, click here.

Advancing the Health of an Aging Population: Friends of the NIA (FoNIA) Briefing 2017

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 12.31.50 PMOn Friday, July 7, 2017, Friends of the National Institute on Aging (FoNIA) hosted its annual briefing on ‘Advancing the Health of an Aging Population.’ These briefings provide important updates on the groundbreaking research that is supported by the NIA to promote the health and well-being of older adults. While registration for this meeting is open to the public, it is most heavily attended by representatives of other aging-related organizations, advocacy groups, and staff of Senators and House Representatives.

In addition to a lecture by NIA Director, Richard J. Hodes, MD, and Deputy Director, Marie A. Bernard, MD, this year also featured a presentation by Penn Medicine’s David J. Irwin, MD, MSTR, assistant professor of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania and clinical neurologist at the Penn FTD Center. Dr. Irwin’s presentation titled “Bringing the microscope to clinic: improving the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders” discussed some of the current challenges of diagnosing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions and how researchers at Penn and beyond are working to overcome these challenges through a variety of studies. Dr. Irwin also stressed the vital role that NIA and other institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) play in making this research possible.

 “As a junior investigator, this has been a very exciting time for me to start my career with a rapid advance in our understanding of the genetics and pathophysiology of AD and related conditions – these advances would not be possible without publicly-funded programs through the NIA, NINDS and other institutes at NIH,” said Dr. Irwin. “I am very enthusiastic and thankful to have the opportunity to help advocate for the mission of the NIA, as this directly leads to the improvement in the care of patients I treat with AD and related disorders.”

Full presentation slides:

Kathy Jedrziewski, PhD, Deputy Director of the Institute on Aging, is the current Chair of Friends of the NIA (FoNIA). For more information on FoNIA, click here

Full 2017 FoNIA Briefing Flyer

The 14th Annual Jane Wright Symposium on Parkinson’s Disease for Patients and Caregivers

Published by Benjamin Deck, Udall Coordinator 

The 14th annual Jane Wright conference was held on June 15th at the Sheraton Hotel on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia, PA. The Jane Wright conference is an annual symposium that brings together the local Parkinson’s community to hear presentations around a central theme and to make people with Parkinson’s (PwP) and their loved ones aware of available resources. The theme this year was, “Hot Topics in Parkinson’s Disease” and the attendance reached an all-time high of over 200 people.

Professor Emeritus of Neurology, Dr. Matthew Stern, MD opened the conference with his lecture on Parkinson’s history and discussed updates to James Parkinson’s original definition of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Some of the issues Dr. Stern outlined were disparate pathologies in PD, PD subtypes, and the idea that current diagnostic criteria do not allow for early diagnosis in PD. One precluding factor of early diagnosis is that motor symptoms are typically not present until later stages of the disease.

The second speaker was the newly appointed Director of Medicine at the Penn Neurological Institute, Dr. Andrew Siderowf, MD. Dr. Siderowf presented new therapeutics in PD such as Safinamide, Rytary, Droxidopa, and Primavanserin. Dr. Siderowf’s presentation also touched on newer surgical interventions for PD such as Focused Ultrasound and Duopa. The presentation then focused on disease modifying procedures and medications that are currently under development, i.e. gene therapy, alpha synuclein anti-body trials, and treatments specialized for specific genetic mutations in PD. View his presentation here.

Assistant Professor of Neurology, Dr. Lama Chahine, MD, spoke of biomarkers and the crucial role that they will play in the diagnosis, prognostication, and treatment of PD. Dr. Chahine made the compelling case for further research on biomarkers in PD by showing the subjectivity of in-clinic motor exams, which are currently the gold standard for a PD diagnosis in movement disorder clinics. Dr. Chahine emphasized that biomarker discovery in cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), blood, and tissue sampling (collected most recently for this trial), could one day diagnose patients earlier and/or better treat the disease.

The final speaker at this year’s Jane Wright Conference was Movement Disorders Fellow, Dr. Michelle Fullard, MD. Dr. Fullard’s presentation outlined the recent technological advances that are helping to deliver better and more accessible treatments. Telemedicine has been implemented in many clinics and decreases travel burden for PD patients who often find this to be a barrier to quality care. Telemedicine allows physicians to remotely diagnose and treat individuals through the use of telecommunications technology. Dr. Fullard also discussed wearable devices that can track a PD patient’s movements through the use of accelerometers and other such technology. The hope its that these devices would allow movement disorder specialists to better understand the motor complications of their patients.

JW Symposium 2017 picture

Lastly, Dr. Stern was awarded an Proclamation signed by Mayor Jim Kenney that decrees April as Parkinson’s Awareness Month in Philadelphia. The proclamation was presented by Ms. Lori Katz and a represenative from Mayor Kenney’s office (pictured above).

View all presentation slides here.


World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2017

weaad_rgb_small-1-300x300.jpgToday, June 15, 2017 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). Created in 2006 by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations, WEAAD strives to raise awareness of the cultural, social, economic and demographic issues of elder abuse and neglect. Elder abuse can present in several different forms such as physical or psychological abuse, neglect, or exploitation, and is an important public health and human rights issue that should be recognized as such.

“Every year an estimated 5 million, or 1 in 10, older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation. And experts believe that for every reported case of elder abuse or neglect, as many as 23.5 cases go unreported.” – USC Center on Elder Mistreatment

For a variety of educational tools & tips on how to identify, address, and prevent these issues, visit the University of Southern California (USC) Center on Elder Mistreatment’s WEAAD website. Information includes:

Show your support for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day by finishing the sentence below, downloading the image, and sharing your answer on social media! Don’t forget to use the hashtag #WEAAD!

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 2.19.45 PM

Download image here.

For more information on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, click here.

Exercise and Aging: Finding the right program for you

Staying fit and active as you age can be a major challenge for some individuals. Whether it is due to an injury or medical condition or simply the normal changes that occur with aging, at some point our bodies just don’t quite function how they used to. Generally speaking, older adults often experience a slowing of movement, which can in turn lead to decreased activity followed by decline in function and ultimately, a loss of independence.

On Thursday, June 8, 2017, the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Human Resources – Quality of Work Life and AREUFIT Health Services, Inc. hosted a workshop on “Exercise and Aging” open to all Penn faculty and staff to discuss safe and effective ways that older adults can work to maintain their function.

“As we age, our muscles tend to work on the “use it or lose it” principle,” said Micah Josephson, MS, representative of AREUFIT and leader of the workshop. There are two main neuromuscular changes that are often associated with aging – dynapenia, the loss of strength and power and sarcopenia, the loss of muscle tissue. However, research shows that exercise and physical activity can help slow or reduce the risk of these changes.

The question is, what type of exercise is the right one for you? Because all of our bodies are different, it is extremely important to understand what exercises and activities will best suit your needs or restrictions and help you achieve your goal.

Josephson presented some “official recommendations” for the following types of exercise: aerobic exercise (often referred to as “cardio”), strength training, balance training, and power training. When it comes to aerobic exercises like spinning, running, swimming, and a variety of group fitness classes such as Zumba, it is best to stick to 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity per week.

Strength training, which focuses on major muscle groups such as the torso and legs, is Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 11.47.06 AMrecommended 2+ days a week. The most important factor is to focus on the number of repetitions (reps) you can reach in a certain number of sets. For example, if you are strength training and doing bicep curls (pictured here), you should try to reach 8-12 repetitions doing about 3-4 sets of this movement. The amount of weight that you should use varies person to person, but it should be enough that you are maxing out around 8-12 reps while still maintaining form and control of the movement.

According to Josephson, balance training is suggested 2-3 days per week/60 minutes per week. The National Institute on Aging (NIH) Senior Health website offers some great tips and examples of safe ways to practice balance training.

Finally, for power training, Josephson says it is best to practice high-speed, low-resistance movements, recommending 2 sets of 12-15 reps twice per week. Using bicep curls as an example again, when power training instead of focusing on reaching a specific number of reps, you would focus on the velocity, or speed, of your movements. You want to perform the movement as quickly as you can while still maintaining control of the weight and yourself.

Regardless of your age or abilities, the first step in determining the best exercise program for you is to set your goal. When setting your goal, you have to think as specifically as possible. For example, the goal of “being able to keep up with the grandkids” does not look the same for every individual. For some, this may be getting up and down on the ground to play a game, while for others it may be running around the yard or going on hikes. These goals focus on very different muscle movements and your exercise program should be tailored accordingly.

If you are serious about exercising and maintaining a safe, active lifestyle as you age, Josephson has three overarching recommendations:

  1. Make the choice to exercise regularly
  2. Find a professional trainer who can help guide you
  3. If you cannot meet regularly with the trainer, meet periodically for check-ins and re-assessments

However, if you do not have access to a personal trainer, there are many other resources that can help you on this journey. The National Institute on Aging (NIA)’s Go4Life campaign is designed to help older adults fit exercise and physical activity into their daily lives. They focus on nutrition, exercise, and safety and offer a variety of tips and examples of exercises for maintaining endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

The NIA’s main website is also a great source of information, not only for tips on exercising, but also for facts on the many benefits and ways that it can improve your quality of life.