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U. receives donation to fund aging health initiative

A public health donation will expand curriculum and increase gerontology research for the state

A $4 million to $7 million donation to the University from the Irene Diamond Fund of New York will help fund a new initiative to study aging health, the University announced Jan. 8. The donation, which will be the largest public health gift the University has received, will launch curricular programs and research projects aimed at improving care for the elderly.

“We’re so happy that there’s a promise of support (for) an issue that we think is important,” said Terrie Wetle, associate dean of medicine for public health and public policy.

The University received the donation in recognition of its strong focus on gerontology in recent years, as well as the prominence of Wetle and Richard Besdine, director of the Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research, who are “eminent experts in gerontology,” said Jane Silver, president of the Irene Diamond Fund. There are currently six public health graduate students focusing in the area of aging, Wetle said.

The University was chosen despite the fact that most recipients of the fund’s donations — and the other five grantees — are based in New York.

“The nature of the gift is a bit unusual,” Wetle said, as it is in the form of a share of a residential building on Roosevelt Island that will be given to the University once it is sold. The building is estimated to sell for about $40 million, with the value of the donation to the University  depending on the final offer. Silver said she hopes it will sell fairly soon, but the timeline is uncertain. Wetle and her partners are currently in the process of determining their priorities for what the gift will support, which will depend on how much money comes in, she said.

One emphasis of the initiative will be continued collaboration with the Rhode Island Department of Health, Wetle said. She has met with Director of Health Michael Fine to discuss plans, including the continuation of community participatory research programs on issues that Health Department staff have identified as “some of the key health issues affecting older people” in Rhode Island, Wetle said.

The initiative — which will focus on Rhode Island’s elderly population as a whole — will be aimed to address diseases that are common in old age, like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and heart disease, as well as conditions that are not necessarily associated with disease, like progression toward a more sedentary lifestyle, Wetle said. As people grow older and become more sedentary, Wetle said, their bones and muscles weaken, putting them at a higher risk for falls and in turn making them more likely to be placed in a nursing home. “It can be as bad as a disease in terms of consequences,” Wetle said.

“In the domain of public health, there is insufficient attention to integrating public health and healthcare in relationship to aging,” Besdine said. The grant “will support development of educational programs that jointly train public health professionals and faculty,” he said, with an expectation that the research could translate to an “improvement in the health of the population.”

The grant will support additions to the curriculum on aging health at Brown, Wetle said. Besdine recently led the Alpert Medical School in a curriculum redesign that added “robust aging content to every course” but was primarily directed at understanding disease in individuals, he said. The next step for the curriculum will be to give “curricular attention to the public health of older people,” he added. Wetle will work on a similar initiative to improve curriculum around health issues and medicine in the aging population in the public health masters program and undergraduate community health program.

The funding will also provide student aid for graduate students and will aim to draw more students interested in public health and aging to the Med School, Wetle said.

The initiative is launching at an important time for public health at Brown, Wetle said, as the University faculty recently approved the creation of a new public health school separate from the Med School. Wetle said those working on the initiative see the new school as “a definite resource that we will very much look forward to using.”

The proposed school for public health — which the Corporation will vote on at its February meeting — “helped to strengthen (Brown’s) proposal” for funding, Silver said.

The initiative for aging health also comes at an important time for the nation, as the baby boomer population grows older, Wetle said.

“We’re about to be hit by this tidal wave of older people,” she said, but in many ways it can be seen as a “perfect storm.” High health costs as well as added emphasis on preventative care due to the Affordable Care Act are encouraging change in the system, she said. “We want to be in a position to inform that change,” Wetle said. “This is an opportunity for us to have one of our signature issues here.”

Rhode Island “is a great state for population intervention” and offers a particularly “wonderful learning laboratory,” Besdine said, which adds to the opportunity for advancing research. “We’re large enough that a million people begins to be a meaningful sample, but we’re small enough to get all the relevant people in a room at the same time,” he said.

Wetle is working with the Department of Health on planning the initiative’s first project, Wetle said. The project will be a 911 pilot research program, which will be funded by Wetle’s personal reserve in the two to four years before Brown is likely to receive the grant money. The pilot program will aim to identify frequent users of 911 — those who call more than four times a year — and track those users’ risk factors, Wetle said. “If we can identify those risk factors, we could then work with their community physicians,” she said. The project will start right away, beginning with the selection of a graduate student who will work with the Department of Health on the pilot program.

The 911 project has been an issue “near and dear to the Health Department,” Besdine said. “They’ve put a substantial amount of resources into it already, and the Diamond contribution will be the final piece of the puzzle.”

With other programs, Brown will have to start from scratch, Besdine said. He has partnered with the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs with hopes of putting exercise and nutrition counseling intervention in the state’s largest senior centers with funding from the Diamond Fund donation, Besdine said.

Looking ahead, this donation and initiative will hopefully be a “first step in a nice long history,” Wetle said. “Having a gift of this size encourages other donors to see that this is a worthwhile place, and it’s really exciting to have this in public health and aging.”


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