Promoting Cognitive Health in the 21st Century: A new IOM report recognizes the public health importance of cognitive aging

2015 Institute of Medicine (IOM) Report on Cognitive Aging

The Institute of Medicine has release Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action, a report on the public health dimensions of cognitive aging.

The report, released on April 14, 2015, is timely. The U.S. population is rapidly aging and individuals are becoming more concerned about their cognitive health. Older adults view “staying sharp” as perhaps one of their most important health care goals.

Prepared by the Committee on the Public Health Dimensions of Cognitive Aging, the report assesses examined definitions and terminology, epidemiology and surveillance, prevention and intervention, education of health professionals, and public awareness and education.

Jason Karlawish, MD, associate director of the Penn Memory Center and director of the Penn Prevention Research Center’s Healthy Brain Research Center — a member of the CDC supported Healthy Brain Network dedicated to surveillance, education, awareness and empowerment the promotes brain health — was a member of the report committee.

“This report is a beginning,” Dr. Karlawish explained. “Over the last 30 years we have made a substantial progress in understanding the causes of neurodegeneration. Alzheimer’s disease has gone from a hidden disorder, to a front and center national concern. Now, we need to pay the same attention to cognitive aging.”

Cognitive aging is a process of gradual, ongoing, yet highly variable, changes in cognitive functions that occur as people get older. Age-related changes in cognition can affect not only memory but also decision-making, judgement, processing speed, and learning.

“Among our key findings was that both human and animal models show how in cognitive aging, neurons are not working as well, but they’re not dying.” Dr. Karlawish noted that this is important because “Synapses may be sick, but there’s a chance they can get well again.”

The report’s findings and recommendations address steps individuals, health care professionals, communities and society can take to promote cognitive health:

  • Increasing research and tools to improve the measurement of cognitive aging.
  • Promoting physical activity; reducing and managing cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking; and regularly discussing and reviewing with a health care professional the medications that might influence cognitive health.
  • Expanding public communications efforts around cognitive aging with clear messages that the brain ages, just like other parts of the body; cognitive aging is not a disease; cognitive aging is different for every individual (there is wide variability across persons of similar age); some cognitive functions improve with age, and neurons are not dying as in Alzheimer’s disease (hence, realistic hope is inherent in cognitive aging); and finally, there are steps that patients can take to protect their cognitive health.
  • Developing and improving financial programs and services used by older adults to help them avoid financial exploitation, optimize independence, and make sound financial decisions.
  • Health care systems and health care professionals should implement interventions to insure optimal cognitive health across the life cycle including programs to avoid delirium associated with medications or hospitalizations.
  • Determining the appropriate regulatory review, policies and guidelines for products advertised to consumers to improve cognitive health, particularly medications, nutritional supplements, and cognitive training.

The report, a slide set, and a four-page key point summary, are free and available for download at:

Published by: Barbara Overholser, Administrative Coordinator, Communication and Dissemination, Penn Memory Center


IOA’s 2015 Sylvan M. Cohen Annual Retreat

Retreat2015SaveTheDateforScreens“Aging with Financial Security: Addressing the Challenges of Cognitive  Aging & Impairment”

This year’s Institute on Aging Sylvan M. Cohen Annual Retreat will focus on some of the challenges of cognitive aging that are addressed in this new IOM report. Co-sponsored by the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy among others, the retreat will offer a line-up of lectures on a variety of topics related to cognitive aging and financial security for seniors.

For additional details on registration, poster submission, and the event’s full agenda, click here.


Is Cardiovascular Disease a Human Inevitability? Insights from the Bolivian Amazon ft. Michael Gurven, PhD

This week the IOA welcomed Visiting Scholar, Michael Gurven, PhD, professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he focuses his research in human social behavior and life history evolution. Dr. Gurven’s talk, titled “Is Cardiovascular Disease a Human Inevitability? Insights from the Bolivian Amazon,” is a result of his professional background in anthropology and personal interest in human health, particularly aging.

Holding the number one spot on the list of causes of death for men and women across the United States and in Europe as well, one of the most common aging-related health concerns is cardiovascular disease. This includes angina, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, and atherosclerosis. Dr. Gurven’s presentation focused primarily on whether the small, horticultural populations that he studies, such as the Tsimane of Bolivia, suffer form the same risk factors and aspects of heart disease as individuals in other areas such as the U.S. and Europe.

Get an overview of of Dr. Gurven’s findings here:

For more information on Dr. Gurven and his research, click here.

What is PD? Help spread the word during Parkinson’s Awareness Month

 Parkinson’s Awareness Month

PDAwarenessThroughout the month of April, the IOA will be celebrating Parkinson’s Awareness Month. As close collaborators of the Penn Udall Center for Parkinson’s Research and the Penn Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center (PDMDC), it is our goal to help facilitate and support the groundbreaking research and care for Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients and their loved ones here at Penn.



So, what is Parkinson’s disease?

SubstantiaNigraParkinson’s disease is a “chronic and progressive disorder of the nervous system that primarily affects movement.” It develops when a group of cells in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra begin to malfunction and die. These cells are responsible for the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends information to the parts of the brain that control movement and coordination. As the dopamine-producing cells die and the level of dopamine in the brain decreases, messages from the brain telling the body how and when to move are slowed more and more, rendering the person unable to initiate and control movement normally.

Other symptoms of PD can include problems with thinking and changes in mood and/or sleep, as well as involuntary movements like tremors or muscle stiffness. While there is currently no cure for PD, there are ways to treat the symptoms. Treatment options include deep brain stimulation, drug treatment, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychiatric and neuropsychology services, and speech therapy among others.

Parkinson’s Disease Facts
Courtesy of PDMDC and

  • Parkinson’s disease affects one in 100 people over the age of 60.
  • The exact cause of PD is unknown, but both genetic and environment are causes.
  • There is no single test to diagnose PD. Neurologists make diagnoses based on assessment of symptoms, medical history, and neurological and physical examinations. In some cases, advanced imaging techniques like MRI scans or dopamine imaging scans can help make the diagnosis by ruling out other disorders.

Celebrate Parkinson’s Awareness Month with the IOA

#FaceTheFactsFriday: This year, the IOA will celebrate Parkinson’s Awareness month in a few different ways. Each Friday this month, the IOA will participate in ‘Face the Facts Friday.’ Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter for a new Parkinson’s disease fact each week. Share our posts and use the hashtags #FacetheFactsFriday and #ParkinsonsAwarenessMonth to join in on the conversation and help spread the word!

Penn Udall Center for Parkinson’s Research Virtual Tour

Towards the end of the month, be sure to keep an eye out for the official premiere of the Penn Udall Center for Parkinson’s Research Virtual Tour video! The video will highlight the talented team of researchers, scientists, and Udall collaborators and the groundbreaking work being done here at Penn. You will get a look into both the clinical and basic research that is at the foundation of our projects and how these investigators are working to improve and increase the levels of education and research on this neurodegenerative disease.