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Penn State establishes the Geroscience and Dementia Prevention Consortium

Close-up portrait of senior woman with dementia who is looking through window.

There is growing evidence that cognitive decline and dementia can be slowed. According to a recent report commissioned by the Lancet, an estimated 40% of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed by targeting modifiable behavioral, physical health, and psychosocial risk factors.

There are also new drug therapies being created, behavioral interventions, and other areas that have shown promise in research. The problem is time. As of now, there is an emphasis on clinical trials that have endpoints primarily in later-stage disease and are unlikely to respond to preventive therapeutics and interventions.

The overarching goal of the new Penn State Geroscience and Dementia Prevention Consortium (GDPC) is to accelerate the scientific discoveries that will prevent or delay age-related neurodegeneration.

“The GDPC will accomplish this goal by focusing research and prevention efforts on people at risk earlier in the disease and life course than is currently feasible,” said Martin Sliwinski, Gregory H. Wolf Professor of Aging Studies, professor of human development and family studies, and director of the Center for Healthy Aging, Penn State.

The GDPC will consist of key partnerships between several established Penn State research centers including the Center for Healthy Aging; the Translational Brain Research Center, directed by Dr. Xuemei Huang, associate dean for physician-scientist development, distinguished professor of neurology, pharmacology, neurosurgery and kinesiology and chief of the Division of Movement Disorders at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; the Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence, directed by Donna Fick, Elouise Ross Eberly Professor of Nursing. The GDPC also plans to work closely with the Center for Artificial Intelligence Foundations and Scientific Applications, directed by Vasant Hanovar, Huck Chair in Biomedical Data Sciences and Artificial Intelligence.

This effort will require integration among biological, psychosocial and medical perspectives to realize a cells-to-society solution organized around three interconnected aims:

  1. Understanding the impact of biological aging and neurodegeneration on the prevention, progression and prognosis of disease and disability.
  2. Understanding the effects of personal, interpersonal, societal and environmental factors on aging and cognitive health, including the mechanisms through which these factors exert their effects.
  3. Developing and disseminating interventions and treatments that enable people to take actions that slow, delay or prevent functional decline in themselves, their families, and their patients.

“Penn State is uniquely positioned to gather data on behavior, risk factors and other characteristics as a function of time and that affect aging and dementia,” said Lora Weiss, vice president for Research at Penn State. “The formation of this consortium is another example of collaborations across the University to address a major challenge. This group has the potential to genuinely advance the field of neurodegeneration research in a powerful way.”

Dr. Kevin Black, interim dean at Penn State College of Medicine, said, “The combined clinical and research expertise of Penn State faculty from Hershey to State College and beyond will make this endeavor successful. With teamwork and innovative ideas, we’ll be able to develop next-generation prevention therapies and interventions that can benefit aging citizens in our state, country and beyond.”

It has been estimated that over 13 million Americans will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) by 2060, compared to 5 million today. Additionally, there are significant health disparities among ADRDs, which occur at higher rates in the poor, and in racial and ethnic minorities, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. These issues are particularly relevant to Pennsylvania, which ranks 5th in the U.S. for the size of its population aged 65 and older.

“As home to the Center for Healthy Aging, the College of Health and Human Development has long been committed to biobehavioral and developmental science to improve our understanding of the aging process and prevent cognitive decline,” said Craig Newschaffer, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean and Professor of Biobehavioral Health, College of Health and Human Development, Penn State.

“Launch of this University-wide consortium will help bring the full range of scientific disciplines at Penn State to bear on dementia and other significant health and well-being challenges faced by the world’s fastest-growing population segment — those 65 and older,” said Newschaffer.

In addition to the expertise from several of Penn State’s research centers, the GDPC includes faculty members from the College of Medicine, the Eberly College of Science, the College of Information Sciences and Technology, the College of Engineering, the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, the Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing, the College of the Liberal Arts, the College of Health and Human Development, and the College of Agricultural Sciences; as well as two established institutes, the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences (Huck). The group also plans to engage with Penn State’s network of commonwealth campuses. The SSRI and the Huck will provide initial financial and administrative support for the consortium.

“This is an exciting time in the field of brain health.” said Dr. Deborah Ehrenthal, director of the SSRI at Penn State. “With the engagement of scholars working across broad disciplines at Penn State we believe the GDPC can make rapid progress in the field and will achieve the ultimate goal of improving people’s lives.”

Andrew Read, director of the Huck at Penn State, said, “We are happy to support the GDPC in their work to prevent or delay the devastating diseases that affect so many people, not just those who suffer from them, but their families and caregivers as well. I believe this work will have real-world impact.”

The Geroscience and Dementia Prevention Consortium (GDPC), is a project of the Penn State University Health Sciences Council, chaired by the deans of the College of Medicine and of the College of Health and Human Development. The council recommends areas for investment to advance Penn State in the health sciences.

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