The world experts on aging reasearch at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have again received an international designation acknowledging their special niche in an area that grows more complex every day as the elderly population explodes worldwide.
UTMB’s Sealy Center on Aging has been re-designated by the World Health Organization as a WHO/PAHO Collaborating Center in Aging and Health. UTMB is one of only three institutions in the United States to receive this designation. The other institutions are New York University and the New York Academy of Aging.
How to address the myriad issues people must navigate as they move into old age is complex and continually evolving. With people living longer than ever, even in underdeveloped countries, many communities, governments and health care systems are unprepared to fully support the older population as it continues to grow and needs more services, says Rebeca Wong, director of the UTMB WHO/PAHO Collaborating Center in Aging and Health.
UTMB’s Sealy Center on Aging plays a critical role as an information resource and a center for innovative, multidisciplinary research on a tremendous range of different aging issues, from stroke and dementia to falls, hospital readmissions, exercise, nutrition, palliative care decision-making, physical therapy, chronic disease, poverty, pensions, and a wide array of other clinical and health-policy related issues.
WHO/PAHO initially approached UTMB’s Sealy Center on Aging in the mid-2000s about the possibility of becoming a Collaborating Center in Aging and Health because of the breadth of aging research it continually produces.
UTMB leaders accepted the invitation and recruited Wong, internationally recognized for her unprecedented longitudinal demographic study of aging in Mexico, to be director of the new center. She joined UTMB in 2008 and since has hosted visiting scholars from all over the world who have come to UTMB through the WHO/PAHO network to learn from its Sealy Center on Aging faculty and take that knowledge back to their own communities.
Visiting scholars have studied such topics as how economic and residential situations change when a person’s health deteriorates, how trajectories of physical ability change with age, how disability and mortality are connected to muscle deterioration and how family structure affects older adults’ frailty and mental health.
Wong’s Mexican Health and Aging Study, the first of its kind conducted in a developing country, has collected information at intervals throughout the last 15 years on 15,000 residents of Mexico age 50 and older. Over the years she and her research collaborators have interviewed these older people and their family members asking questions about every aspect of their lives — from dietary practices and activity levels to jobs, attitudes, money, relationships and religion. In 2012, she was awarded $3 million from the National Institutes of Health to continue her work.
Her teams compile and publish their demographic data regularly, making it available online to other researchers worldwide. When Wong announced the release of her most recent findings last year in Mexico City, the country’s Director General of the National Institute of Geriatrics credited Wong’s study and the research generated with these databases as a key catalyst for recent changes in the country’s health care and social security programs for the elderly.
“To know that your work has that kind of impact on a whole country’s older population is amazing,” said Wong. “I am grateful that UTMB supports our mission and that we can in turn foster aging research throughout the region with our WHO/PAHO collaborations.”
WHO/PAHO Collaborating Centers assist the global organization to investigate public health issues from many angles, ranging from basic science and animal studies to clinical trials, public policy, training and dissemination.
UTMB’s responsibilities as a WHO/PAHO Collaborating Center in Aging and Health are to identify institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean to jointly pursue opportunities for clinical and scientific research focusing on health of older adults and to continue its visiting scholar programs with partner institutions for visitors to complete research on aging in coordination with UTMB researchers. UTMB also cooperates and collaborates with WHO/PAHO on the translation and dissemination of its research findings on older adults and establishes training opportunities in aging research and clinical fellowships.