Anti-aging agents: Undergraduate students combat aging and health disparities in Appalachia

MORGANTOWN — Aging in Appalachia doesn’t need to be what it’s perceived to be: Long commute times for quality healthcare and high rates of diabetes, depression and every other disease under the sun. 

Now a West Virginia University program hopes to flip that script by preparing undergraduate students for careers aimed at solving aging and health disparity problems in Appalachia. 

Growing up in Danville, a Boone County town of around 700, Kaylee Ferrell hadn’t realized the scope of health disparities there as a child. Ferrell has been able to observe her hometown through a different lens because of the Appalachian Gerontology Experiences – Advancing Diversity in Aging Research project.

“As a young child I remember thinking they (health disparities) were normal and it was how most people lived,” said Ferrell, a biology student. “I thought everyone had to drive 40 or more minutes to get to a hospital or that having a heart attack was just something that happened to most people when they got older.”

In 2020, the National Institutes of Health awarded WVU a $1.7 million, five-year grant to establish the AGE-ADAR project, which provides training and hands-on experiences for underrepresented students like Ferrell in medical and STEM fields.

Ferrell conducted research that found that rural Blacks and individuals with more mentally unhealthy days experienced higher rates of cognitive difficulties.

“It is extremely important to not only have the cure for a disease, but an answer as to why that disease is more prominent in a certain region so solutions can be made,” Ferrell said. “This program gave me a new outlook on health and why I want to be a physician.”

Julie Hicks Patrickpsychology professor and lead investigator of the project, said many AGE-ADAR scholars have roots in West Virginia and have a desire to give back to their communities. 

Patrick noted that West Virginia is the only state contained entirely in the Appalachian Region, which stretches from New York to the deep south. 

“Here in West Virginia, people die younger, have a younger onset of disability and have a lot of untreated medical conditions,” Patrick said. “And if you live somewhere like Calhoun County, you may live quite a distance from a hospital. Aging in Appalachia includes a lack of access to medical care.

“Some people also expect to feel badly when they’re old. They don’t have the same attitude about health and wellbeing as others might. We know that you can live a happy and healthy life well into your 90s.”

AGE-ADAR, which is one of only 16 programs of its kind according to the NIH, brings in students during their rising sophomore or junior years and puts them into a summer workshop. Using nationally-representative data, the scholars conduct a research project aimed at aging and health disparities, which they present at a symposium. Some scholars have gone on to present at national and regional conferences. Among a few of the topics researched were dental disparities in West Virginia and symptoms of PTSD among the state’s veterans. 

Additionally, students take part in courses and workshops focusing on written and oral communication skills and professional development.

“We really encouraged them to do research and disseminate it,” Patrick said. “Later on in the program, they’ll make videos and materials to share with people around West Virginia to try to improve their health.” 

One AGE-ADAR scholar, Faraz Shere, an exercise physiology student from Charleston, believes that the research opportunities offered by the program will groom him for medical school. 

Having personal ties to family members with various health ailments fueled his interest in AGE-ADAR. 

“My research in the program focused on diabetes and cognitive difficulties, as both topics are issues that are endemic to my family,” Shere said. “Seeing my family struggle with both issues gave me the drive and motivation to learn more about them, and how they influence each other.

“By eliminating our chronic health issues and creating a fitter and healthy community, we will become more resilient and better able to face the challenges of the future, and transform the label of Appalachia in a positive direction.”

As a psychology major, Bianca Dominguez, of Haymarket, Virginia, also gained valuable research experience in her field. She explored the association between level of education completed and depressive disorders in adults in West Virginia. 

“I’ve learned about the many disparities that occur within the region of Appalachia and the impact programs like these can have in our community and in ourselves,” Dominguez said. “It is important to acknowledge the disadvantages that people in these areas face in order to be able to start addressing them.”

Joining Patrick as investigators on the project are Betty Mei, of Graduate Education and Life, who serves as AGE-ADAR program director; Kristina Hashsocial workAmy Fiske, psychology; and Bernard SchreursSchool of Medicine.

“We expect to have three cohorts that run through a two-year program,” Patrick said. “So we’ll have 60 scholars that we’ve trained by the end of the grant. Hopefully, this will lead them to successful careers where they can use their skills and make life a little bit better for older adults here in West Virginia.”

Read the student AGE-ADAR application. 

Register for a virtual Zoom open house from 4-5 p.m. Oct. 28.

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