Baltimore – Almost everyone knows someone – or is someone – who has pain, forgetfulness or other age-related problems or illnesses.
Let’s face it, the human body deteriorates as it ages: bones become brittle, muscles don’t recover as quickly, the brain even begins to shrink.
Johns Hopkins University has assembled a group of experts based at its Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore to accelerate ongoing work to better understand what causes these age-related issues, slow them down, or even fix them.
This is an ambitious collaboration between several hospital and university departments at Hopkins called the Human Aging Project.
“We’re not aiming for people to live forever,” said Dr. Jeremy Walston, professor of geriatric medicine at the Hopkins School of Medicine and director of the project. “But if we can slow down the progression of the disease and reduce people living with a disability by 10 to 20 years, we can offer them a better quality of life.
“We will probably also increase longevity.”
Walston conceived the idea years ago while treating his elderly patients with cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other common conditions that develop over time. He wanted to improve their lives now, but also to study the biological underpinnings of aging so that there could be better therapies or prevention strategies later.
The project was launched about a year ago, bringing what Walston calls a “big umbrella” of expertise in areas including healthcare, research, artificial intelligence and technology, engineering and business. Hopkins students have the opportunity to participate, as do some outside companies and universities that have aging-related innovations to develop.
Much of the research draws on decades of work at Hopkins and elsewhere. Some efforts now under the aging project banner are already in advanced stages. Devices and therapies ready for human testing can seek volunteers from Hopkins’ broad spectrum of geriatric patients.
There is urgency to the effort. More than 54 million Americans are 65 or older, or about 16% of the population, according to federal statistics. This number is expected to rise to almost 22% by 2040, and the number of people aged 85 and over is expected to more than double.
Most older people have at least one chronic condition, and many have multiple conditions, which can include physical and cognitive impairments.
Many older people want to “age in place,” with outside and even government support to stay at home, but that becomes less possible as people become more debilitated, Walston said.
The aging project will apply for a grant to pay for specific efforts. Already, the Hopkins project is one of three academic institutions to receive $20 million from the National Institute on Aging that will go specifically for work in artificial intelligence and technology. Hopkins will distribute grants of up to $200,000 over five years, with some of the money going to universities and outside companies that want to partner with Hopkins on devices and other innovations for older adults.
The National Institute on Aging has been looking for academic centers that can generate high-tech ideas and scale them up, said Partha Bhattacharyya, program director for the institute’s Behavioral and Social Research Division and program manager. of grants.
Bhattacharyya said the NIA was looking to the centers to develop devices and therapies that would specifically help older people live independently at home. This means, for example, pursuing technology to aid in decision-making, coordinating care between doctors or supporting cognitive therapy.
“NIA takes a holistic approach to the research and development of new technologies, and we realize that technology solutions for use in homes and communities will require coordination across a wide range of disciplines and economic sectors,” he said. he declares.
Hopkins had already won nearly $16 million in other National Institutes of Health grants focused on frailty and resilience in aging, which included money to train new researchers in those areas.
The project named several Hopkins “scholars”, who are experts in their field and have received $6 million in philanthropic grants. They pursue work in engineering, biology, turning basic science into real therapies and social justice. The program specifically called on scholars to pursue scientific research that more deeply engages underserved seniors in Baltimore, as well as other parts of the country, and said any device or therapy resulting from the project must be financially and physically accessible.
An effort already underway, for example, uses imaging technology to screen for cataracts without an eye specialist, which may be in short supply in rural areas and underserved urban areas. Walston said equity and diversity will be an important part of the aging draft.
Another part of the project involves engineering students, who will work with professors to develop new devices.
Engineering masters student Joshua Blair prepares to test a device to promote better sleep and memory retention, a common problem among older people, especially those with dementia or other cognitive disorders.
The device uses sensors and stimulates a part of the brain where experiences are transformed into memories during deep sleep. The idea is that people wake up feeling better rested and more alert.
“We’ll be able to instantly see if it works,” Blair said.
Dr. Peter Abadir, a professor of medicine at Hopkins, had taken engineering students to patient clinics to see if they could generate interest and ideas about ways to improve the lives of older people. He found that many jumped at the chance to develop something that they could then test and turn into a real product.
The sleep device is expected to be tested this summer at a Hopkins sleep lab.
“We want things to happen today, not 20 years from now,” Abadir said. “But we make sure we don’t end up with something that isn’t practical or effective.”
This is where some of the university’s business expertise will come into play, Abadir said, assessing markets and turning ideas into products.
The aging project also includes work in the lab, where researchers assess basic biological processes to find clues as to why age-related conditions develop and what to do about them. .
Recently, Nick Milcik, a research specialist in the Hopkins Department of Geriatrics, was manipulating samples of cortisol taken from the saliva of surgical patients over time. Researchers hope to see if levels of the stress hormone can possibly help predict, for example, who will be fine after surgery for knee replacement surgery. It could tell doctors when they can move forward and when to delay or cancel procedures in patients unlikely to benefit.
Reyhan Westbrook, a teacher of geriatric medicine, is in the lab studying the role of inflammation in aging and how to control when it gets too much. It focuses specifically on a sleep-regulating amino acid called tryptophan, which has anti-inflammatory effects and could potentially aid in therapy.
Some inflammation is necessary as a defense against infection and injury, Westbrook explained, “but it’s a problem when it’s overloaded. It is amplified in the elderly.
Some research has gone beyond the laboratory. One of the project’s researchers is Dr. Alex Pantelyat, assistant professor of neurology and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine. He is not a music therapist, but uses rhythm and music as medicine, sometimes playing the violin for patients.
Pantelyat said there is already plenty of evidence for the benefits of music in promoting well-being and healing. he is looking for new ways to use these advantages.
Among the efforts he is pursuing under the Aging Project banner is a wearable device that uses music to improve mobility in people with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement and is common in the elderly. Sufferers often have difficulty walking and are at risk of falling.
Falls are a major health problem, leading to disabilities as well as a significant number of deaths. One in four seniors falls each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This results in tens of billions in medical expenses for fatal and non-fatal injuries.
Pantelyat is testing a product developed with a Maine-based company that uses rhythmic music to normalize someone’s gait. The human brain naturally responds to a rhythm and the device will train people who listen to specific music and walk for 30 minutes a day. A sensor on the wearer’s shoes speeds up or slows down the pace with the walker’s speed.
“If we can reduce falls, that’s really the holy grail,” he said. “There are no side effects to music-based interventions that incorporate rhythm. That would really be a significant achievement.
Clinical trials are expected to begin this summer.
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