Helping Older Adults Stay Healthy, Fit and Strong

02/08/2012

Susan Hughes wants older adults to stay Fit and Strong! — the title of the eight-week program she developed, now used by 44 providers in three states.

Hughes, co-director of the Center for Research on Health and Aging at the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy, is a gerontologist and health services researcher who has contributed to the science of aging for more than three decades.

Her research focuses on the health of older adults, including long-term care policy, cost and quality; the effectiveness of community-based services for older adults; prevention of disability; and wellness behaviors in an aging population.

Soon after her arrival at UIC in 1997, Hughes built an interdisciplinary team that successfully competed for an Edward R. Roybal Center grant from the National Institute on Aging. Since then, the UIC Midwest Roybal Center for Health Promotion and Translation has worked to improve quality of life for older adults. Its newest project focuses on older underserved minority adults, particularly Latinos.

Hughes, professor of community health sciences in the School of Public Health, is one of only three investigators nationwide to receive Roybal funding through multiple grant cycles. The UIC center has generated more than $40 million in external research funding for investigators in different disciplines and provided critical pilot funding for more than 35 faculty and doctoral student investigators.

The development and testing of Fit and Strong! — a physical activity and behavior change program for older adults with arthritis — has been a major focus of Hughes’ research. The program has been shown to improve joint stiffness, pain and function, anxiety/depression, lower extremity strength and gait speed.

Fit and Strong! is the only evidence-based program in the country for persons with lower extremity osteoarthritis that has been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Administration on Aging. Licensed by UIC, Fit and Strong! is used in Illinois, North Carolina and West Virginia.

“It’s been a great ride,” says Hughes, who has also received funding throughout her career from the National Institute on Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and private foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Arthritis Foundation.

“I was very lucky because I’ve worked with a great team of people,” she says, adding that interdisciplinary teams like those sponsored by the Institute for Health Research and Policy are critical for successful research.

Hughes is a mentor for young investigators in the Hartford Geriatric Social Work Scholars Program. Her practical advice for building a successful career in research: identify a significant issue that affects a lot of people, have impeccable research methods and work with a talented interdisciplinary team.

“My experience is that UIC is really committed to fostering quality and competitive work,” Hughes says. “And that’s a nice environment to be in.”

This story was written for UIC News by Sherri McGinnis-González, associate director of the UIC News Bureau.