UF Institute on Aging wins major grant for research to help older adults stay healthy

Marco Pahor, M.D., director of the UF Institute on Aging, is the principal investigator of a major NIH grant to the UF Pepper Older Americans Independence Center. Photo by Ray Carson

The University of Florida Institute on Aging has been awarded a major grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging that is expected to total $5.2 million over five years. The award, in renewed support of the UF Pepper Older Americans Independence Center, will fund studies to better understand the biological and behavioral processes that lead to physical disability in older adults, and to develop and test disability prevention and rehabilitation therapies.

The new award comes on the heels of $3.9 million in NIH funding that established Florida’s first Pepper Center at UF in 2007.

“We are honored by this strong, continued support as we use scientific tools to tackle the issue of aging,” said principal investigator Marco Pahor, M.D., director of the UF Institute on Aging and chairman of the department of aging and geriatric research in the UF College of Medicine. “Each grant and each resulting research finding brings us one step closer to providing older adults with the means to maintain their health, independence and dignity as they age.”

UF is one of just 15 institutions in the nation to receive the award, which is named for the late Claude D. Pepper, a U.S. senator-turned-representative from Florida. Pepper advocated for the rights of the elderly and championed laws aimed at improving the health and well-being of older Americans.

“The UF Pepper Center has long been interested in maintaining and improving function of older adults in the community,” said Basil Eldadah, M.D., Ph.D., acting chief of the geriatrics branch of the National Institute on Aging. “It has made several significant contributions to our understanding of aging processes, particularly in the areas of prevention and rehabilitation of disability in older people.” 

Aging takes its toll in varied ways, affecting many different organs. It can show up as acute effects such as hip fracture or stroke, or as chronic health conditions such as heart disease, osteoarthritis or mental decline. But although aging reveals itself in so many ways, mounting research points to one main process — muscle loss — as having a hand in all those changes.

The work of the UF Pepper Center focuses on understanding age-related muscle loss from different perspectives, and the potential role of skeletal muscle as a key target for therapies to counteract age-related damage to the body. The center’s researchers work in a wide range of scientific disciplines, including molecular biology, gerontology, epidemiology and behavioral sciences.

“The UF Institute on Aging has demonstrated its commitment to easing the burden of age-related illnesses, and has taken a lead role in finding research-based ways to help older adults maintain the best possible quality of life,” said David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president for health affairs and president of the UF&Shands Health System. “The Pepper award is a recognition of the world-class, patient-centered research being carried out at UF.”

Since 2007, the center’s researchers have conducted several basic science and clinical studies and published more than 450 scientific papers in noted journals such as Nature, The Journals of Gerontology and the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The researchers have discovered that higher levels of physical activity are associated with longevity, better mood and improved strength among older adults; that low levels of an enzyme found in white blood cells are linked to better survival in frail older adults, and that a cancer drug can extend the lives of older mice, among other findings. Pepper-funded preliminary studies have formed the basis of 36 pending grant proposals totaling $38 million, for larger studies.

In addition to conducting basic, clinical and translational studies of age-related changes in the body, another central part of the center’s mission is to train the next generation of researchers and help them develop skills in both aging research and leadership. Junior faculty selected for the Pepper scholars career development program hail from various disciplines, including medicine, dentistry and public health, as well as from affiliated institutions such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“This invaluable research training complements national efforts to increase the number of physicians and other clinical professionals who are specially trained in the area of geriatrics,” said UF College of Medicine Dean Michael L. Good. “These physicians and scientists will develop tomorrow’s medical tools and therapies that their clinical colleagues will use to care for patients in community practices and health care organizations.”