Gerontology in the news

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How technology bridges gaps between healthcare and underserved populations

Steven Ondersma discovered that "only a very small proportion, maybe 10 percent" of the people who need professional care realize that need and have the means to address it. "I've just become really interested in having whole-population effects, rather than helping a few people who might be ready to make use of the treatment and have access to that treatment," says Ondersma, deputy director of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at Wayne State University. Ondersma and others in Michigan who are interested in addressing the social determinants of health have increasingly turned to technology as an answer to that question. Weisong Shi, professor of computer science at Wayne State envisions the potential for technology to bring a doctor's office to those more remote patients. He proposes a vehicle, "just like an ice cream truck," that would allow people to get basic physical tests in their communities, with the results being transmitted back to a provider's office. Asthma disproportionately affects African-Americans nationwide, but in Detroit the problem is particularly pronounced – and often an emergency situation. Karen MacDonell, associate professor in Wayne State’s School of Medicine, has been using technology to improve those outcomes with the Detroit Young Adult Asthma Project. Funded by a series of National Institutes of Health grants, MacDonell began the project over 10 years ago by interviewing young African-American Detroiters about their asthma. She asked participants what strategies would help them adhere to their medication before an emergency arose. "Long story short, they wanted something using technology – something they could have with them, something easy to manage, something brief," she says. MacDonell developed a text messaging program that collects information about a patient's asthma and then sends the patient conversational messages encouraging medication use.
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Age of fraud: are seniors more vulnerable to financial scams?

Scientists looking into age-related financial vulnerability are very interested in physical changes to the aging brain, the way eyesight and hearing can get less keen. In some cases, a new pattern of making mistakes with money may be a harbinger of cognitive bad things to come, the “first thing to go,” as it were. McGill University neuroscientist Nathan Spreng was able to track down 13 elderly scam victims and 13 others equivalent in age, gender and education who had successfully fended off a scam. Spreng’s research found the brains of the two groups were physically different. He noticed this thinning of the part of the brain called the “insula,” which, along with a lot of other things, may help us trigger our “spidey sense,” the hunch that can warn us away from dicey financial situations. Some experts are skeptical about practical applications of research like Spreng’s. Peter Lichtenberg, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University, is not a neuroscientist but a psychologist who studies financial decision-making capacity. While he sees the brain scanning as promising, his experience tells him financial acumen and scam-spotting are really complex matters. “There is no one aging pattern,” Lichtenberg said. “You know, some older adults are as good as they were in their fifties and sixties. Others are showing a more significant decline.” Lichtenberg says he has data showing 20 percent of older people admit when they do talk about money with others, it’s out of loneliness. That is, people might engage with a scammer because they want to talk to someone, anyone.

The 5 worst things to say after someone dies—and what to say instead

Around 7,500 people die each day in the United States—one person every 11.5 seconds. By your 50s and 60s, you’ve almost certainly had personal experience with death—a parent’s death, other close family members, and/or personal friends. And yet, when you hear that someone has died, it’s still hard to know what to say to their loved ones. Part of the reason is that seeing the grief and pain of others surrounding death is uncomfortable. You also may be grappling with your own feelings about your experiences. They may also be busy making arrangements, causing it to appear like they’re handling the death particularly well. “Then you might find a few months later that it’s all starting to hit,” says Peter A. Lichtenberg, a clinical psychologist and director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University. “Grief is very variable. It brings out a sense of finality and a sense of helplessness in all of us,” says Lichtenberg. 
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Health grant aims to benefit older minorities in Michigan

Three Michigan universities are using a $3.5 million federal grant renewal for efforts to improve the health of older blacks and other minorities. The National Institutes of Health grant allows the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research (MCUAAAR) to expand its work through 2023. The center's research and education is led by faculty and staff from Wayne State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Black residents have higher rates of diabetes, stroke and other diseases than their white counterparts, officials said. Researchers seek to prevent health disparities. The center has focused on Detroit since its 1997 launch, but the latest grant brings aboard Michigan State and expands work into Flint. Goals include establishing a Healthier Black Elders Center in Flint, based on the one in Detroit. According to Peter Lichtenberg, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State, MCUAAAR is a catalyst for widespread change. “It has two major aims,” he said. “Increase the number of diverse junior faculty working in aging and health research, and partner with older African Americans in meaningful ways to improve health and well-being.”

Doctor discusses cold weather dangers facing those with dementia

There have been at least three cases in the past two days in Michigan where people with dementia or early onset dementia walked out in the cold and died. Psychologist Dr. Peter Lichtenberg, the director of the Institute of Gerentology at Wayne State University, tells Michigan News Network many people with dementia do some kind of wandering. “Some of it the need for stimulation, and some of it is sort of an idea that comes to them to go somewhere, and then losing that train of thought,” Lichtenberg said. “It’s incredibly dangerous with the way the weather is now.”