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Research and Practice

Mental Health and Aging

As the U.S. population of older adults booms over the coming decades, there will be an increasing demand for knowledge that can be leveraged to promote quality of life and prevent disability. The faculty members in the Department of Mental Health’s Program in Cognitive Aging and Mental Health are highly committed to observational and intervention research aimed at enhancing cognitive and mental health.

The Program faculty members conduct research using large-scale, longitudinal observational and intervention study designs, including: dietary supplemental, cognitive training, and cognitively enriching “everyday” interventions to promote cognitive, brain, and functional health; imaging studies of aging and age-related cognitive disorders; late-life sleep disturbances as predictors of cognitive and functional impairment and decline; the natural history and consequences of mental disorders in diverse aging adults; genetics of cognitive decline and Alzheimer disease; real-time assessment of lifestyle activity as future targets of intervention; environmental and pharmacologic risk modifiers of cognitive, brain and functional aging and dementia risk; animal models of aging and neurodegeneration; and prevention of late-life mental health problems.

Ongoing and Future Plans for the Program

  • Expanding our work on serum and imaging biomarkers of aging and neurodegenerative diseases· Expanding our work on stress- and anxiety-related disorders; later life alcohol and drug problems
  • Developing new epidemiologic strategies to explore and test behavioral interventions to prevent and delay progression of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Applying state-of-the-art functional neuroimaging methods as sensitive, intermediate outcomes in the evaluation of mental health interventions
  • Promoting research focused on health disparities and the health and well-being of racial/ethnic minority older adults
  • Exploring how neighborhood disadvantage may serve as a common cause between individual risk factors and cognitive and functional health, particularly in minority populations.
Mental Health and Aging

Our Work in Action

Dr. Joe Gallo, Dr. Adam Spira, and colleagues collaborated on a study of how self-reported sleep disturbances are associated with remission of depression and with suicidal ideation in older adults treated for depression in primary care settings. Over a one-year period, in comparison to older adults whose sleep improved, those whose sleep worsened were more likely to remain depressed and to have suicidal thoughts. Additional studies are needed to examine the role of disturbed sleep in the maintenance of depression.

abstract photo of person sleeping
photo of clock and moon suggesting insomnia
Mental Health and Aging

Our Work in Action

Former doctoral student, Marian Tzuang, PhD, led a study with Dr. Adam Spira showing that older adults reporting insomnia symptoms were more likely in the following year to have emergency department visits, to be hospitalized, and to be readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge. These results prompt the question of whether safely treating insomnia symptoms in older adults could help prevent the need for these health services.

Faculty Spotlight

George Rebok

George Rebok

Professor
Mental Health

George Rebok, PhD, MA, is a life-span developmental psychologist who develops community-based interventions to prevent age-related cognitive decline and reduce dementia risk.

Michelle Carlson

Professor
Mental Health

Michelle Carlson, PhD, uses wearables and data to measure cognitively enriching activity in daily life and design interventions to buffer the brain and delay dementia.

Adam Spira

Adam Spira

Professor
Mental Health

Adam Spira, PhD, MA, studies how healthy sleep can protect against poor outcomes in later life, including cognitive and functional decline, and Alzheimer's disease pathology.

Training and Funding Opportunities