Northeastern joins new research center on healthy aging

Northeastern is a founding member of a new multi-university research center focused on healthy aging. In particular, the center will develop and test innovative strategies to promote, increase, and sustain physical activity among middle-aged and older adults.

Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, will lead the Northeastern team involved in the Boston Roybal Center for Active Lifestyle Interventions. The center launched this fall with support from a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences

Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences

Based at Brandeis University, the center will harness the expertise of its institutions—which also include Boston University, Boston College, and the Harvard Medical School-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife—and their interdisciplinary researchers to develop and test motivational, social, and behavioral strategies to support increased physical activity, especially for adults at high risk of poor health outcomes.

According to the World Health Organization, one in three adults worldwide is not active enough, and physical activity is the fourth-leading risk factor for death. Physical inactivity is cited as a key risk factor for health problems ranging from cardiovascular disease to diabetes.

“There are numerous health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle, particularly for older adults,” Fulmer said. “As a center, our goal is to work collaboratively to create and advance research that promotes behavioral change and helps this population live healthier, more active lives.”

The center is testing and piloting strategies using a variety of personalized and multidisciplinary approaches. Northeastern researchers are leading three of the center’s first five pilot projects:

•    Carmen Sceppa, professor of health sciences, will examine whether a peer-led, community-based group group exercise program improves how frail, sedentary older adults deal with their positive and negative emotions, and if so how these improved emotion-regulation strategies enhance their daily physical activity and well-being.
•    Holly Jimison, professor of the practice in the College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, is developing and pilot testing a novel and scalable approach to augmenting depression prevention and management, with a focus on low-income older adults living independently at home. The project builds upon her work using an existing software platform for semi-automated remote health coaching.
•    Elizabeth Howard, associate professor of nursing, is implementing Vitalize 360, a comprehensive assessment system and personalized wellness coaching program for vulnerable, low-income community dwelling older adults.

The center will work to create and advance research in this field, in addition to training other academic researchers and community organizations to help older adults increase their activity level and lead a healthier lifestyle, Fulmer said.

There are currently 13 Roybal Centers nationwide. The centers were authorized by Congress in 1993 and are named for the chair of the former House Select Committee on Aging, Edward R. Roybal. They are intended to develop and pilot innovative ideas for translation of basic behavioral and social research findings into programs and practices that will improve the lives of older people and the capacity of institutions to adapt to societal aging.

Northeastern’s membership in this new Roybal Center dovetails with the university’s focus on health, one of its primary research themes.

Fulmer said Northeastern is exceptionally well positioned to conduct use-inspired research across disciplines to address health and healthy aging. Building on its leadership in this area, Northeastern this fall established a center designed to advance nursing scientists’ research and effective technology interventions for improving self-care and self-management for America’s older adults. The Northeastern Center for Technology in Support of Self Management and Health, also known as NUCare, is supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Nursing Research.