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Genes, environments and aging

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Release Date: 02/22/2022

Improving the health and well-being of family caregivers show art Improving the health and well-being of family caregivers

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Francesca Falzarano is an assistant professor of gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School. Her research is inspired by her personal experience as a caregiver to her parents and explores how to improve the mental health and well-being of family caregivers, including through the use of technology. On young caregivers “I think right now it's estimated that five and a half million individuals are under the age of 18 are caring for a parent or some family member with chronic illness, mental health issues, dementia-related illnesses, and other age-related impairments. So, this is something...

Aging among Black Americans show art Aging among Black Americans

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Lauren Brown is an assistant professor at the USC Leonard Davis School. Her research uses publicly available data to uncover the unique difficulties Black Americans face in maintaining physical and psychological well-being as they age. Her lab both challenges the methods used to study older Black adults and strives to increase diversity in data science research with the goal of increasing the visibility of Black and Brown people via data and storytelling. Quotes from the episode On the role of racism in biomedical and statistical sciences and disease prediction If you think about the...

Using dance to ease Parkinson’s symptoms show art Using dance to ease Parkinson’s symptoms

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Patrick Corbin is an associate professor of practice at the USC Gloria Kaufman School and an internationally renowned dance artist whose career has spanned over 30 years and bridged the worlds of classical ballet, modern and contemporary dance. He recently spoke to us about his work, exploring the positive effects that dance can have on neurology. On movement and movement therapy Well, on a neurological level movement is cognition. Movement stimulates cognition.  So that's sort of the sciencey part. The other part is that dance is a multifaceted, multilingual way of movement, and...

The effects of exercise on the brain show art The effects of exercise on the brain

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Connie Cortes is an assistant professor of gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School. Her work straddles the fields of neuroscience and exercise medicine, and she recently spoke to us about her research seeking to understand what is behind the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain with the goal of developing what she calls “exercise in a pill” therapies for cognitive decline associated with aging and neurodegenerative diseases.  On brain plasticity and brain aging Brain plasticity we define as the ability of the brain to adapt to new conditions. And this can be mean...

Tips for healthy aging show art Tips for healthy aging

Lessons in Lifespan Health

and instructional associate professor of gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School, and a specialist in geriatric medicine, joins us for a conversation about healthy aging, including tips on how to keep the body and mind functioning for as long as possible. Quotes from this episode On the importance of setting small goals "People may have all the good intentions, but they might set up goals that are too ambitious and then when they don't reach that goal, they feel frustrated, and they quit… We have to let them understand that goals must be small…So, an apple a day. We have to eat the...

Cellular balance across the lifespan show art Cellular balance across the lifespan

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Dion Dickman, associate professor of neuroscience and gerontology, joins George Shannon to discuss how the nervous system processes and stabilizes the transfer of information in healthy brains, aging brains and after injury or disease.  Quotes from the episode: On synaptic plasticity: “Synapses are essential, fundamental units of nervous system function and plasticity is this remarkable ability to change. And throughout early development into maturation and even into old age, synapses just have this amazing resilience to change and adapt to different situations and injury disease,...

A balancing act: homestasis under stress show art A balancing act: homestasis under stress

Lessons in Lifespan Health

is a Distinguished Professor of gerontology, molecular and computational biology, and biochemistry and molecular medicine at USC. Over the course of his career, he has played a central role in defining the pathways and mechanisms by which the body is able to maintain balance under stress and in uncovering the role aging plays in disrupting this balancing act. He recently joined Professor George Shannon to discuss his research on how the body is able to maintain balance under stress and the implications it could have for preventing age-related disease and decline.   Quotes from this...

Improving health outcomes and quality of life show art Improving health outcomes and quality of life

Lessons in Lifespan Health

is the Mary Pickford Chair in Gerontology and director of the at the USC Leonard Davis School. She's also the co-director of the National Center on Elder Abuse, which is housed at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She recently spoke to George Shannon about her research, including her work exploring ways to provide long-term care services and supports that allow older adults to be as independent as possible and the challenges and opportunities that technology provides in this area. Quotes from this episode On building on lessons learned during the pandemic “I think a lot of what we saw...

Stem cell biology and aging show art Stem cell biology and aging

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Rong Lu is an associate professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, biomedical engineering, medicine, and gerontology at USC. She joins George Shannon to discuss her research into the complex and surprising behavior of individual blood stem cells and what it could mean for treating diseases associated with aging. Quotes from this episode On stem cells and what makes them so promising for medical research Stem cells are the special cells in the body that can produce other type of cells. So in particular there are two type of stem cells, one called embryonic stem cells that only...

The intersection between stress and aging show art The intersection between stress and aging

Lessons in Lifespan Health

Assistant Professor of Gerontology joins Professor George Shannon to discuss their research seeking to understand why stress response pathways break down as we grow older and whether there may be ways to delay that breakdown and potentially promote healthier lifespans.    Quotes from this episode On the definition of stress: Stress can come in so many different forms and flavors. It can come in the form of something external, something like heat stress. For example, being out in the desert heat, it can be something as similar to cold stress of a winter storm, or even something like...

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Research Assistant Professor Thalida Em Arpawong joins Professor George Shannon to discuss her research to better understand how our genes and environments influence how we respond to stress and adversity and impact how we age.

On the definition of bioinformatics and its use in research

“Bioinformatics is a science subfield, but really just refers to a set of tools that we use to collect, analyze, and interpret findings from large volumes of biological data. We use tools like super computers, biostatistical models, computer programming, and specific types of software, while at the same time, integrating biological concepts to guide how we use these tools. So the data we use—we call it “omics” data, for short—includes primarily genomics, transcriptomics, epigenomics, proteomics, metabolomics, that is, all the omics. Here in the school of gerontology, Dean Cohen had a vision of creating a core to help support researchers in their labs that want to use omics data but may not have the background to do so.

So, relatedly, with the Genomic Translation Core, we also use bioinformatics to work with human data, to collaborate with biologists. So these biologists work on model organisms for their research, like worms, mice, or yeast, and the biologists who have been granted pilot awards through the Nathan Shock Center because they've made some important discoveries in their model organisms, we work with them to confirm what the relevance is of their findings for human aging processes. It’s an exciting time because through this work together, we have the potential to use the expertise across different disciplines to answer some bigger questions that we haven't been able to previously with regard to cross-species effects of genomics and health.”

On her research on how experiences of stress and adversity throughout different developmental stages in life and genetic factors work together to influence emotional and cognitive health as we age

So we used to think that genetics was much more deterministic, but we now know there are much more complex and interrelated processes occurring. We found that social structures in which we can characterize groups, such as gender, race and ethnicity or social status, are very importantly related to how genes get expressed. Similarly, people's behaviors shape levels of gene regulation and expression, then have downstream effects on immune system health, development of chronic diseases—for example, obesity, heart disease, depression—and even lifespan. So it's becoming more critical to include these key social factors in human research when we evaluate the effects of genomic data on health.”

On her research looking at how having early childhood adversity and adulthood adversities affect the level of depressive symptoms when older

“What we found were two main things. First, that there was essentially a dosage effect, so that with each additional childhood adversity, there was an even greater risk for more later-life depressive symptoms, even after the age of 50. And second, the hypothesis that was supported was called stress proliferation, which is essentially the idea that stress begets stress. So therefore, earlier-life adversities are accompanied by more adulthood adversities, and that's how they work together to impact mental health later on.”

On the mind-body connection, or the role of mental health in healthy aging

“When we think of psychological factors, such as stress and adversity and socioeconomic hardships, compared to other factors that affect aging, we're finding that there are more influential compared to genetic or biological factors. And in a recent study by Eileen Crimmins, she found that, in particular with mortality and cognitive functioning, these factors explain 25 to 30% of the variance. So that's a significant amount and often much more variance explained than we can detect for something like genetics.”

On epigenetics and how our social environment can affect our genetic expression

“We used to work under the assumption that the effect of genes was best studied at the level of a genotype or just what's encoded in our DNA sequences. But we're finding that there's so much more and we need to measure how our DNA has structural changes that occur throughout life that are not in the code itself but actually in our epigenome. So similar to using genetic risk scores, we can actually now calculate these epigenetic risk scores, and those tend to encapsulate things we've been exposed to or behaviors. … There is research on how we react to stressful experiences, how that it gets embedded into our epigenome. And we can quantify some of that using these epigenetic scores.”

On the role of education in health outcomes as we age

“Education is important for aging because it's one of the most consistent measures to relate to almost all of the health outcomes that we look at, including cognitive, emotional, physical outcomes, financial outcomes, and mortality. So it's an important aspect, and what we found is that the heritability of educational attainment has been estimated to be around 40%, which then leaves 60% attributable to social influences, or the environment, but unpacking how those genetic factors and environmental factors sort of work together is important if we're looking from the perspective of how to promote more education, especially for those at high risk for some of the negative health outcomes.”

On her research looking at psychological resilience in aging

“I appreciate that the aging field is really the only one that embraces the resilience concept in a way that there isn't a sole focus on disease or deficits, but an interest on healthier aging or successful aging from the perspective that there are different processes involved than when avoiding or preventing disease and morbidity.

 A lot of my work has focused on psychological resilience in different developmental stages of life, which means evaluating what contributes to people doing better than expected in the face of adversity or challenge. So not just having greater wellbeing or greater health, but having those states despite having been exposed to having to adapt to life insults and significant stress. So what I'm focusing on now is evaluating lifelong effects from adolescents through older adulthood for psychological resilience and how that affects biological aging.”

On her research looking at the importance of physical activity across the lifespan

“One of my projects uses the Project Talent Twin and Sibling study to answer the question of ‘Does it matter when somebody is more physically active in earlier life or later life, or do you need both to result in better cognitive and emotional health later on?’ and how much of the determination of those behaviors is nature versus nurture. For instance, how much is physical activity dictated by socioeconomic adversity when growing up or [by] later-life financial constraints? And then with regard to nature, one key finding is that there seems to be very little overlap between earlier and later life physical activities that's due to genetic factors. So I didn't expect to find this, but it's interesting because from a public health perspective, I'm interested in how physical activity is a protective factor against adversity [and] results in better health and how the implications for findings from this work can inform how we design interventions to support how individuals adapt to stress throughout life.”

On the concepts of generativity and post-traumatic growth

“There has been a lot of research on generativity and how that relates to a resilience concept called post-traumatic growth. So people who've been through really intense, kind of acute stressful experiences have to reflect and rethink what their life means, what their purpose is, what their direction is in life, how they orient to people and relationships. And one of the things that is very related to gaining more post-traumatic growth is, for older individuals, having this perception of greater generativity because I think there's that relationship to purpose and meaning. And at the same time when you're talking about looking forward, there's that whole concept of future orientation that also is related to higher levels of post-traumatic growth and adaptation post-acute stress and adversity. So I think these are all very intertwined and interesting.”

On efforts to study the effects of mindfulness and meditation

“There's that whole field of psychoneuroimmunology that also bears some similar concepts [to transcendence] where there's a lot of researchers who were looking at things like mindfulness, or flow. But the concept of mindfulness, I think, relates to transcendence and there is a whole group of researchers that formed these collaborations with the Dalai Lama, and they were trying to conceptualize how to operationalize these aspects of meditation and other things that we find are beneficial, but we can't really study that clearly. And so there is a whole area that has emerged about the mind and the psyche and how we can use the mind and psyche to manipulate the effects on our immune systems and other aspects of our biology.”

On expressing gratitude to research study participants

“I'd really like to thank all the people who participate in surveys. Some who've taken part since high school, in the case of the Project Talent Studies, and allowed us to follow them up over 50 years later, and others who've answered question every two years for almost 30 years, some have given DNA and biological samples. But this method of tracking people's experiences, their natural histories, their biology, and how well these all come together has been absolutely invaluable to research across so many fields. And what we know about life course risk and protective factors for health as we age would not be where it is today without these folks, especially the diverse range of folks involved, so we can make research more relevant to addressing health needs for everyone. So if any of them are listening, a hearty, very grateful, ‘Thank you.’”