UIC to Strengthen Research to Reduce Disparities in Healthy Aging


With an eye on a graying America, the University of Illinois of Chicago (UIC) is building on its foundation of research promoting the health of older adults, especially African Americans and Latinos.

Through a funding initiative by the UIC Chancellor, the School of Public Health and the College of Applied Health Sciences will hire an interdisciplinary cluster of five new faculty members, host symposia and recruit doctoral students to focus on this critical area of study.

The population of older adults is growing faster than any other in the United States. By 2030, almost one in five Americans will be age 65 or older, presenting an unprecedented demand on the health care system and aging-related services, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the health of older adults in the United States is improving, “we have significant disparities in health outcomes and quality of life for minority older adults,” said Susan L. Hughes, professor of community health sciences and co-leader of this cluster, who also directs the Center for Research on Health and Aging at the Institute for Health Research and Policy (IHRP).

“We need to take steps now to improve the quality of life for all older adults in the U.S. The consequences of not doing that are too horrible to contemplate,” she said, citing a “pandemic of disability” and skyrocketing health care costs.

Not just older people would benefit from this research, said Tamar Heller, professor and head of disability and human development in the College of Applied Health Sciences and director of the Institute on Disability and Human Development.

“As people with long-term disabilities live longer, they experience a cascade of health disparities,” Heller said. “Bridging research and practice to address both aging and disability can improve outcomes for both older adults and adults with disabilities.”

Hughes and Heller were architects of the proposal to expand UIC’s healthy aging research. Under this initiative, faculty from diverse backgrounds will be recruited for five positions over the next four years:

  • Senior faculty member in the Division of Community Health Sciences in the School of Public Health, with a distinguished background in the development and testing of health promotion interventions for African American or Latino older adults.
  • Senior faculty member in the Department of Disability and Human Development in the School of Applied Health Sciences, with a respected body of translational science in health promotion, aging and disability.
  • Junior faculty member for the Department of Occupational Therapy in the College of Applied Health Sciences, with research in rehabilitation outcomes for older African Americans and Latinos.
  • Junior faculty member for the Department of Physical Therapy in the College of Applied Health Sciences, who conducts research on preventing pain and functional limitations in racially and ethnically diverse older adults.
  • Junior faculty member in the Division of Health Policy and Administration in the School of Public Health, who assesses and improves the cost effectives of health care services of ethnically and racially diverse elderly.

The new faculty will conduct their research at the Institute for Health Research and Policy, which fosters interdisciplinary health research among faculty from ten colleges on campus, through the Center for Research on Health and Aging. The work of this cluster of faculty builds on that center’s history of intervention research focusing on older minority adults that has been conducted with Roybal Center funding from the National Institute on Aging.

“We look forward to supporting these new faculty members in their research collaborations and drawing others to this important mission,” said Robin Mermelstein, director of IHRP.

Besides strengthening intervention research for older minority adults, the initiative’s funding will support two symposia, intended to “catalyze cross-agency and cross-organization collaboration on making Chicago an aging-friendly city,” Hughes said. The funding also will foster continuing education for older adults and support an increased offering of interdisciplinary courses in aging studies on campus.

A steering committee led by Paul Brandt-Rauf, the dean of the School of Public Health, will oversee the hiring of faculty and the initiative’s implementation. Joining him will be Bo Fernhall, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences, Hughes, Mermelstein, Heller and chairs of the departments participating in this initiative.

“The selection committee envisioned (Hughes and Heller’s) proposal as one that would increase the diversity of our faculty while also growing translational and engaged research at UIC,” wrote Chancellor Paula Meares in her e-mailed announcement to the campus.

The proposal for the cluster on healthy aging research was one of six considered for the second phase of the first year of the Chancellor's Cluster Initiative to Increase Diversity and the Interdisciplinary Culture at UIC. In May 2012, the chancellor announced funding of expanded scholarship in six other areas of study through this initiative: global urban immigration, integrative neuroscience, Middle East and Muslim societies, the racialized body, and social justice and human rights.

This news release was written by Veronica Johnston, communications director of the UIC Institute for Health Policy and Research.