By Rosanne Fohn
|School of Health Professions Interim Dean Nita Wallace, Ph.D., visits with luncheon keynote speaker Jerald Winakur, M.D., at the conference in San Antonio. (Click on images for a larger view) |
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The School of Health Professions has helped sponsor two conferences on healthy aging this spring. The first was held in San Antonio March 23 and featured faculty members from throughout the UT Health Science Center San Antonio as well as speakers from the community. A conference April 6 at the Regional Campus in Laredo brought the latest research on aging to nearly 90 Laredo residents.
The “Aches and Pains of Aging” conference, held at April 6 and co-sponsored by the Regional Campus in Laredo, featured four faculty members from the university’s Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, as well demonstrations and educational information from community partners promoting healthy activities for elders. Learning about aging from nature
Keynote speaker for the conference was Steven Austad, Ph.D., interim director of the Barshop Institute and professor of cellular and structural biology. He studies the secrets of aging in nature, including a species of ocean clams that can live for more than 500 years, and hydra, which are freshwater animals a few millimeters long that have the ability to regenerate. He has written several books on the science of aging for the lay public including “Why We Age: What Science is Discovering about the Body’s Journey Through Life,” which has been translated into eight languages.
Dr. Austad discussed the unseen “chemical warfare” for survival taking place in the plant and animal world, and how nature has many lessons for humans about longevity. For example, a certain bacterium that keeps cells from dividing is used to make the drug rapamycin, currently used as an anti-rejection medication in humans following transplant surgery. Studies conducted at the Barshop Institute have shown that rapamycin given to older mice increased not only their lifespan, but their quality of life in older age. Rapamycin has shown promise in animal research involving Alzheimer’s disease and other maladies often associated with older age.
Dr. Austad has studied ocean clams “whose hearts were beating before Shakespeare was born.” He said, “They can handle the chemical stressors of aging better than most other species. And some species, such as bats, can maintain certain functions, such as hearing, much better than other species in older age.” These are two of many species he studies to better understand how some species are better able to prevent the aging process.
Preventing diabetes through exercise
|At the “Aches and Pains of Aging Conference” in Laredo are UT Health Science Center faculty members (left to right) Sara Espinoza, M.D., M.Sc., Nicolas Musi, M.D., Regional Dean Gladys Keene, M.D., M.P.H., Steven Austad, Ph.D., and Helen Lum, M.D., M.S. |
Nicolas Musi, M.D., spoke about the physiological effects of aging and how exercise in older adults can actually reverse the effects by revving up the body’s metabolism. Dr. Musi is associate professor in the Division of Diabetes, associate director for translational research at the Barshop Institute, director of the Center for Healthy Aging and director of the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, Audie L. Murphy Division.
An endocrinologist, Dr. Musi said half of people age 65 and older either have diabetes or are prediabetic. He wanted to find out what can be done to reduce this trend.
Diabetes is a chronic condition in which the body is no longer able to convert sugar produced by the food we eat into energy, resulting in high sugar levels in the body. “High sugar is very toxic to cells in our body,” he said. “Older people can only use about half the amount of sugar as a young person.” He examined mitochondria, little “factories” within our cells that convert nutrients from food into energy. Mitochondria often lose their efficiency in converting sugar to energy as we age.
He conducted a four-month study in which a group of healthy senior citizens rode stationary bicycles for four months. He compared how efficient their cells’ mitochondria were in converting sugar to energy before and after the study. “The exercise increased their mitochondrial productivity by 80 percent, which is very similar to a much younger person’s mitochondrial functions.” His study showed that consistent exercise can be an important factor in preventing diabetes in older age.The Frailty-Diabetes Connection
Sara Espinoza, M.D., M.Sc., section chief for research and assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics, Gerontology and Palliative Medicine, and a member of the Barshop Institute, spoke about “The Frailty-Diabetes Connection.” She said: “Frailty is a geriatric syndrome of increased vulnerability with aging. Older adults who are frail are more likely to have difficulty caring for themselves. Emerging evidence shows that obesity and diabetes are major risk factors for frailty. Staying physically active, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy body weight are all important in order to prevent frailty.” Preventing falls
Also speaking at the conference was Helen Lum, M.D.. M.S., assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics, Gerontology and Palliative Medicine, and a Barshop Institute member. Dr. Lum discussed the increase in falls by senior citizens and how to prevent them. “Falls are a result of many factors, such as poor health, environmental hazards and interactions between medicines that can cause older persons to be unsteady,” she said. “Caregivers can do a lot to help prevent falls. They can keep the path between the bedroom and bathroom well lit at night, clear electric cords and phone cords from high-traffic areas, and encourage elders to make exercise a part of their daily routines,” she said.
The conference, part of the Regional Campus’ annual Stay Healthier Longer Series, was supported in part by the South Texas Outreach Foundation.