Helping older adults in times of extreme heat


Helping Older Adults in Times of Extreme Heat

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Helping Older Adults in Times of Extreme Heat
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As the summer of 2023 appears poised to be the hottest on record, caregiving expert Donna Benton shares how caregivers can help vulnerable older adults stay healthy despite the heat.

“It is predicted that this is not just going to be our hottest summer, but we’re going to have more extreme weather events, so we need to be prepared,” says Benton, research associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Family Caregiver Support Center (FCSC). “There are things that caregivers can do to make sure that an older adult is safe during these type of heat emergencies that we’re witnessing more.”

Check in and prepare
Simply checking in with loved ones, friends, or neighbors and making some quick preparations can be hugely beneficial, Benton says.

“It’s nice to have a checklist of things that you can do,” she says. “Can you make sure the person has enough water in their house? Are you aware of where the cooling centers are? If you have an extra fan and that person doesn’t have one, can you loan them a fan? [Is there] a list of their doctors, so that if you need to call the doctor and describe what’s going on, they can tell you the next steps to do if somebody’s feeling ill?”

This is especially important for people living alone, Benton adds: “It’s important if you can at least have one other person who checks on you on a regular basis. That way, if there’s an emergency, you should have somebody who knows.”

Know who’s at risk
Older people are at heightened risk during heat waves, especially in low-income communities, Benton explained.

“The highest-risk people during this climate change are people who are ill; a lot of older adults already have some illnesses,” she says. “People who are in low income areas [may not] have accessible ways of cooling their home. … Older adults are more vulnerable during extreme heat and other natural disasters because they may have physical limitations so that they can’t get out of the home.”

New training program for caregivers
The Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center, a program of the FCSC, is partnering with UCLA to launch HeatWise, a training program for informal caregivers on helping older adults prepare for heatwaves and recognizing the signs of heat-related illness. The HeatWise program was proposed by UCLA student Nikolas Wianecki and was named a winner of the 2023 Health Equity Challenge, a competition presented by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, The MolinaCares Accord, and the California Health Care Foundation.

Benton says the HeatWise program will feature online and printed toolkits with checklists, resources, and lists of symptoms all related to heat as well as workshops to help caregivers learn how to respond to heat emergencies.

“[The toolkit] be easy to read, with things you can rip out and fill in so that you have your checklist ready and you can individualize it,” she says. “It’s really an exciting project.”

Watch below as Donna Benton shares how to help older adults in times of extreme heat.

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As the summer of 2023 appears poised to be the hottest on record, caregiving expert Donna Benton (@donnabentonphd) shares how caregivers can help vulnerable older adults stay healthy despite the heat. #Heatwave #Caregivers
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Field trip to introduces USC TRiO students to research opportunities in aging


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Field trip to USC Leonard Davis School introduces USC TRiO students to aging research opportunites

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Field trip to USC Leonard Davis School introduces USC TRiO students to aging research opportunities

GEMSTEM panel inspires students with valuable advice and mentorship.
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High school students from the USC TRiO Educational Talent Search program recently visited the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, where they toured state-of-the-art laboratories and received advice from USC undergraduates participating in aging research. The goal of the TRiO program is to help students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to higher education and the field trip to the Leonard Davis School aimed to encourage them to see themselves as future students and scientists.

“Most of our students come from underrepresented backgrounds and we want to give them exposure to students doing university research and to ensure that they can see that it’s possible for them too,” said TRiO director Judy Fillarca. “Our goal is to make them inspired and hopeful.”

The high school students heard from a panel of undergraduate scholars from USC’s GEMSTEM program, an NIA-funded program designed to provide opportunities to emerging researchers from diverse backgrounds and to increase the number of researchers working to reduce health disparities in older adult populations.

Each GEMSTEM student presented their research and passed along valuable guidance, including encouragement to be true to oneself, avoid comparisons, remain curious, and embrace failure.
GEMSTEM students also shared the degree of support they received from faculty mentors, not only in research but also in academics and personal growth.

“You always have someone in your corner,” said Aaliyah Thomas, a GEMSTEM scholar conducting social science research on centenarians in the Ailshire Research Group at the USC Leonard Davis School. “The cool thing about research is there is so much to study. You can literally do anything.”

In addition to gaining an understanding that scientific investigations encompass many topics, the students also learned that options to participate in research can be available to anyone with an interest.

Maria Oorloff, a first-year transfer student and GEMSTEM scholar working in the Sanabria Lab recounted how she learned to conduct and present research despite never being exposed to it before coming to USC.
“When I was in high school, we didn’t have labs, and I’d never even seen a beaker or pipette,” said Oorloff. “My mentor worked with me one-on-one to figure out a plan that suits me and now I want to continue to do research.”

Hearing from students like Maria helped the students feel like there is a place for them in labs and at schools like USC.

“Some of them don’t even have a research background and for them to now have an interest in it, made me have an interest too,” said TRiO student Rich Lopez.

“After hearing everyone present, I realized they are just people,” added fellow student David Miguel. “It gave me the confidence to actually be able to apply to this school.”

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Uncovering the secrets of the ‘SuperAgers’


Uncovering the Secrets of SuperAgers

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Uncovering the Secrets of SuperAgers

A new effort from the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology aims to glean life lessons from people who are redefining what old age looks like.

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At 96 years old, sculptor Thaddeus Mosley has never been more in demand. The Baltimore Museum of Art showcased five of his recent works as part of a traveling tour that also includes a stop in Los Angeles. Mosley created three large sculptures for a 2020 display at Rockefeller Center, and he is the subject of a soon-to-open exhibition at the Louvre-affiliated Eugene Delacroix Museum in Paris.

In his Pittsburgh studio, Mosley creates abstract sculptures carved from salvaged wood through an improvisational process he compares to the jazz music he loves and listens to as he works.

“I have no intention of retiring as long as I’m physically able to work,” he said. “It’s just like music — you just keep playing, you just keep working. And it is something I like to do.”

In the art world, Mosley is regarded as a prolific innovator. In the gerontology world, the nonagenarian is recognized as something else. Mosley is a SuperAger.

“SuperAgers are not just people who have lived to old ages. They’ve lived to old ages with the social, physical and mental state of a much younger person,” said Jennifer Ailshire, associate professor of gerontology. “SuperAgers are the people who are redefining what old age looks like.”

Mosley cooks. He goes to jazz clubs. And he spends six to eight hours a day in his studio, maintaining a work ethic and positive outlook that show no signs of slowing.

“I celebrate life every day,” he said. “I am always eager to get here, and always eager to get to work.”

Researchers believe that learning from SuperAgers such as Mosley can provide some clues to help the rest of us live longer, healthier lives.

That is the goal of an ambitious new project at the USC Leonard Davis School that’s supported by funding from the M Center of Excellence. The formal name is the Lifetime Circumstances Predicting Exceptional Longevity Project. Informally, the research team says they are working to uncover the secrets of SuperAgers.

“This project is going to try to reveal the realities of super-aging,” said University Professor Eileen Crimmins, who is co-leading the project with Ailshire. “We aim to examine the social, psychological and health characteristics of SuperAgers and produce insights into what works for different people and how society should best plan for future longevity.”

The project builds on earlier research the pair published that looked at the lives of exceptionally long-lived Americans, a rare but growing subset of the U.S population that is expected to increase sixfold by 2050. One previous study looked at whether longer lives are healthier lives, and concluded that some centenarians and near-centenarians achieve exceptional longevity in relatively good health and without loss of functioning. Another study found that the oldest old are more satisfied with life, are better able to maintain social relationships with family and friends, and receive more social support than younger older adults.

Their previous and current research leverages nationally representative data sets collected over the past two to three decades. As more people have grown older, these data sets — including the Health and Retirement Study — have amassed a wealth of information on social, behavioral and psychological factors for people who have lived to be around 100 years old. The sets include data on specific life circumstances that include jobs, marriage, military service, traumas, family, community and support from friends.

“Our focus now is on identifying psychosocial factors, including levels of satisfaction, happiness and social relationships, that can help provide clues to better aging,” said Crimmins. “While others have looked at the genetic factors linked to very old survival, we believe that also incorporating the social factors will provide insights as to why many people survive longer than average and can provide a roadmap for best practices and policies that can benefit current and future generations.”

Crimmins argues that incorporating social and behavioral factors alongside biological mechanisms is critical for making meaningful advancements in aging research and for promoting healthy longevity.

In fact, a 2020 study by Crimmins found that when it comes to our health as we age, social factors may play a stronger role than biological ones. Even when controlling for biological measurements — including blood pressure, genetic risk factors, mitochondrial DNA copy number and more — social differences such as education, minority status, psychological states and health behaviors, along with demographic factors such as age and gender, explained most of the differences in aging outcomes between study subjects, she said.

For example, loneliness and isolation are associated with shorter lives and poorer health, while other evidence points to the brain-boosting benefits of playing an instrument or learning a second language. In addition, living with purpose, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly and socializing with others have all been linked to longer, healthier lives.

These findings don’t surprise Los Angeles resident and SuperAger Frances Ito. At age 90, she gardens, hula dances, plays the ukulele and attends regular Bible study. She credits a mostly vegetarian diet, physical activity and social connections as being key factors in her longevity. She also believes a positive attitude is essential.

“I think it’s just [your] state of mind that really encourages you to be healthy,” she said. “I think if you are negative and self-talk about ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ or ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ oh, boy — you’re in trouble.”

A main mission of the SuperAger project is to disseminate the findings to a wide audience. A recently launched website includes interactive charts showing where centenarians are living and short videos featuring Ito and other SuperAgers in their daily lives.

The project also aims to gather relevant data and conduct additional studies to show how quickly centenarian populations are growing in countries around the world; understand whether there are countries where the oldest old are faring better than in others; and explore whether these longest-lived adults are happy, depressed, lonely or satisfied with life.

While earlier research underscored the importance of examining variation in the growing centenarian population, it was limited due to small sample sizes and lack of reliable records.

“Because there were few sources of data on the oldest old, and even less research on the psychosocial characteristics of the longest-lived, our understanding of longevity and quality of life was limited,” said Ailshire. “The current research benefits from better record keeping of births and deaths beginning around a century ago.”

According to the researchers, it will now be easier to investigate disputes like the recent dust-up over whether the world’s longest-lived person, France’s Jean Calment — who died at the age of 122 — was actually her daughter in disguise (she was not). Another benefit of the current project is that it delves beyond data and gleans life lessons directly from SuperAgers like Mosley. His advice:

“Believe in what you can do, because no one knows what your capabilities are. It is up to you to see how far you can go.”

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New research focuses on cells’ building blocks, aging and stress


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New Research on Cells’ Building Blocks, Aging and Stress

Foundation grants support newly published research at the intersection of stress responses, aging and cellular structure and function.

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A recent study led by Assistant Professor of Gerontology Ryo Sanabria has identified a key protein that helps regulate the actin cytoskeleton, a scaffold of proteins within cells that makes their proper structure and function possible.

A review of genes both in the worm C. elegans and in human cells published in the journal Aging Cell revealed that the protein BET-1 promotes the proper function of actin, the protein that makes up the building blocks of the cytoskeleton. Overexpression of the gene for BET-1 appears to preserve actin function at later ages and improve health and lifespan in worms, according to the study.

Many of the cellular processes that depend on the actin cytoskeleton – from cell division to recycling damaged parts of the cell – deteriorate during aging and exposure to stress as the cytoskeleton breaks down. However, the regulatory mechanisms involved in preservation of cytoskeletal form and function are not well-understood, Sanabria said. With the cytoskeleton being necessary for numerous cellular functions as well as maintaining its very shape, understanding its regulation and how well it responds to stressors over time could shed light on many aging-related illnesses.

How stress and aging affect cells

A large part of Sanabria’s research interest is the intersection between stress and aging, including how organisms respond to stress, how stress impacts aging, and how organisms respond to stress at the cellular level. Stressors that affect organisms at the cell level can include heat, oxidation, infection, caloric restriction, and more.

“My lab has studied stress responses in three areas: the endoplasmic reticulum, which acts as a ‘factory’ for proteins, lipids, and other molecules within the cell; the mitochondria, where cells’ energy is produced; and the actin cytoskeleton, which helps cells keep or change their shape as needed,” Sanabria said. “Each of these systems has unique ways to respond to stress and maintain their health and function.”

Exposure to stress can be detrimental to cellular health and fitness, Sanabria explained, and thus cells have adapted cellular stress responses that mitigate damage associated with stress exposure. Cellular stress mechanisms decline during aging, making older organisms more sensitive to stress; hyperactivating stress responses can promote resilience and improve general health and longevity, they added.

“When you’re stressed, what’s your capacity to bounce back? The more you can recover from a stressor, the healthier you are, but with aging there is less response and recovery,” Sanabria explained. “But if you take a young person’s stress resilience and give it to an older individual, will they be healthier?”

New gifts support research on cells and stress

Sanabria’s quest to understand how stress and aging impact cellular structures, including the actin cytoskeleton, have been recognized with recent grants supporting their work from the Larry L. Hillblom Foundation, the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research/American Federation for Aging Research, and the Navigage Foundation.

The Hillblom Start-Up Research Grant will provide Sanabria a total of $210,000 over a three-year period to study how the actin cytoskeleton interacts with cells’ energy-producing mitochondria during stress and aging. The organization’s Start-Up grants were designed to help newer scientists begin their independent research careers. Sanabria arrived at the USC Leonard Davis School as an assistant professor in 2021 following a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley.

Sanabria also received a 2022 Junior Faculty Research Grant from the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research/American Federation for Aging Research in support of their work regarding stress and aging, especially in the endoplasmic reticulum. An organelle known for producing proteins, lipids and other molecules, the endoplasmic reticulum’s unfolded protein response is an important mechanism in preserving healthy protein structure in the face of toxic stress. The $125,000 grant supports Sanabria’s research into how hyperactivating this protective response in specific neurons within the brain can affect health and longevity, which could help identify which neurons are responsible for sensing stress and coordinating the body’s response to it.

In addition, Sanabria has received a $100,000 award from the Navigage Foundation to translate their studies into Alzheimer’s disease. Since they have found that promoting stress resilience is a potential method to increase longevity, the next question is whether it can also be used as a vehicle to combat age-related diseases, Sanabria said. With the support of the Navigage Foundation, Sanabria is investigating whether those that have higher risks for Alzheimer’s Disease had inherently lower capacity to deal with stress and whether increasing stress resilience can actually mitigate the risk – and even slow the progression – of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Large-scale genetic screens identify BET-1 as a cytoskeleton regulator promoting actin function and life span” appeared online in Aging Cell on November 20, 2022. First authors included Gilberto Garcia and Maxim Averbukh of the USC Leonard Davis School and Raz Bar-Ziv of UC Berkeley. Additional authors included Naibedya Dutta, Darius Moaddeli, Toni Castro Torres, Athena Alcala, Sally Hoang, an d Max A. Thorwald of the USC Leonard Davis School; Hanlin Zhang, Wudi Fan, C. Kimberly Tsui, and Erica A. Moehle of UC Berkeley; Nirmalya Dasgupta and Peter D. Adams of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute; and Ophir Shalem of the University of Pennsylvania.

Additional funding for this study came from National Institutes of Health grants T32AG052374 and R01 AG071861, Larry L. Hillblom Foundation Fellowships 019-A-023 and 2020-A-018-FEL, National Institute on Aging grants F32AG069388 and R00AG065200, and National Institute of General Medical Sciences grant 1DP2GM137416-01.

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USC chapter of Dialogue Society focuses on outreach to older adults


USC Chapter of Dialogue Society Focuses on Outreach to Older Adults

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USC Chapter of Dialogue Society Focuses on Outreach to Older Adults

Joining forces with existing chapters at UCLA and UCI, the USC chapter focuses on student outreach to older adults, including those living in senior communities.

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USC is home to the newest chapter of Dialogue Society, a student-led organization focused on promoting meaningful dialogues about healthy, purposeful and mindful living and inspiring personal development. Joining forces with existing chapters at UCLA and UCI, the USC chapter focuses on student outreach to older adults, including those living in senior communities.

Since the chapter’s formation in 2021, the organization has held a variety of events relating to physical, mental, and social wellness. Fall 2021 was the first fully active semester, during which the organization held online events as well as Dialogue Society’s first in-person events since the beginning of the pandemic. Successful collaboration with the UCLA chapter resulted in two scam-prevention workshops for seniors at Belmont Senior Living in Westwood and EngAGE at Piedmont Senior Apartments in North Hollywood.

“As technology becomes increasingly present in our lives, it is important to be aware of potential cybersecurity risks, so we educated the seniors about safe technology practices and gave them a chance to ask questions and share any past experiences they had with scams,” said USC chapter fundraising chair Sanjana Paye, major in quantitative biology and minor in science, health and aging.

Dialogue Society at USC has also held Storytelling Sessions. These workshops ask students and seniors to write short stories and share their stories with each other. The workshops have included prompts such as, “What advice would you tell your 16-year-old self?,” “Recall memories with a childhood friend,” and “Tell a story regarding your favorite song.”

“Seniors and students alike enjoy connecting and learning in this way with each other,” said Dialogue Society member Rachael Geary, graduate student in visual anthropology.

Sharing stories with each other in an intimate setting allowed students and seniors to listen deeply to one another’s experiences, creating a space for stories of the past to live in the present. As seniors and students are relearning how to navigate in a world with COVID-19, being able to connect with seniors in this event, even virtually, creates a sense of calmness and community that many feel is needed now, said member Misa Belser.

Dialogue Society at USC started a new series of events in the 2022 Spring Semester, beginning with a workshop in collaboration with ORBIT, a student organization in the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. Doctor of Dental Surgery and Master of Science in Gerontology student Jessica Kim, the chapter’s outreach director, connected Dialogue Society to ORBIT. The collaboration focused on older adult oral health and was hosted by Ivy Park at Culver City on March 19. In this event, participants were educated on how to maintain good oral health and hygiene. Ninety oral hygiene instruction (OHI) kits were gifted to all residents and caregivers at the center. The event was partly funded by the Graduate Student Government at USC, and OHI kits were sponsored by Oral-B and Crest.

Dialogue Society also collaborated with USC Advocates for Healthy Aging (AHA), a student volunteer organization aiming to enrich the lives of older adults in retirement communities, in organizing the Sticker Sale and Donation Drive at the Trojan Farmers Market.

“All PAWS/LA sticker revenue and donations were directly given back to PAWS/LA to help low-income seniors, veterans, and people disabled by illness keep and care for their pets,” said Secretary and Marketing Chair Keran Chen, major in Human Development and Aging. During a second collaboration with AHA, volunteers worked with the LA Food Bank to assemble food packages for low-income seniors of Los Angeles County.

The organization intends to hold new and varied events in the future. Upcoming events include an older adult nutrition workshop, another oral health workshop in collaboration with ORBIT, and events in partnership with USC’s National Alliance on Mental Illness. Dialogue Society at USC encourages members to take the lead on events and pursue directions that are of personal interest to them, while keeping in mind the needs and interests of their senior communities. Students of any major who are interested in volunteering can find more information at

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