Three budding experts have been awarded support for projects aimed at improving the lives of older adults facing Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The USC Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center for Minority Aging Research (USC-AD RCMAR) recently announced its 2020–21 scientists. Recipients were selected from a competitive field.
This year’s USC-AD RCMAR scientists are Portia Cornell, an investigator in the Department of Health Services, Policy and Practice at the Brown University School of Public Health; Mateo Farina, a National Institute on Aging (NIA) postdoctoral trainee at the USC Davis School of Gerontology; and Adriana Reyes, an assistant professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University.
Each year, USC-AD RCMAR leadership selects outstanding early-career investigators to pursue one-year pilot projects in select, critical research areas including racial and ethnic differences in risk, diagnosis and care for persons living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias as well as the health and economic consequences for the persons with the disease and their families. Scholars are paired with senior faculty mentors and gain access to extensive data and analytical support at the USC Schaeffer Center. They join a growing cohort of 27 scholars from across the nation.
Projects Examine Disparities, Population Health, Family Caregiving
For her RCMAR project, Portia Cornell—who is also a health research specialist at the Center of Innovation for Long-Term Services and Supports at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rhode Island—will explore racial segregation and disparities in assisted living for older adults with dementia.
“I’ve always been interested in policy and how it can either help or hinder older adults from aging in the way that they should—getting the care that they need, in a way that suits their preferences, needs and dignity,” she says. “If, in assisted living, residents are sorted by socioeconomic status and by race into different types of facilities, what are the implications for structural racism or people not getting the care they need because they can’t afford it?”
Cornell will be mentored by Mireille Jacobson, senior fellow and co-director of the Aging Program at the USC Schaeffer Center, and associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.
RCMAR scholar Mateo Farina will examine whether biomarkers can improve cognitive-status classification and the potential contribution that could make to population-based research.
“My RCMAR project is aiming to bring all the biological research that’s been going on for the last 10 years and see if it is feasible to use it in social science population-based surveys, and if it is feasible, whether it’s worth the cost,” Farina says.
He further notes how the pandemic has reinforced the need for rigorous population studies. “COVID-19 is showing the importance of population health measures that are accurate,” Farina says. “With COVID, we don’t even know how many people have died.”
Farina will have two RCMAR mentors: Eileen Crimmins, senior fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center, associate dean and AARP Professor of Gerontology at the USC Davis School, and director of the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health; and Jennifer Ailshire, a fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center, assistant professor at the USC Davis School and a former RCMAR scholar in 2014–15.
RCMAR scholar Adriana Reyes will focus on how different state policies affect family caregiving strategies for adults with cognitive decline. She will be mentored by Julie Zissimopoulos, senior fellow, director of the Research Training Program and co-director of the Aging Program at the USC Schaeffer Center, and associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
“The more resources you have, the less you need a policy enabling you,” Reyes notes. “For example, if you have plenty of resources, you can take unpaid leave, whereas if you’re lower-income or live paycheck to paycheck like many Americans do, then taking unpaid leave is not always an option.”
Reyes’ gratitude for the RCMAR scholarship extends beyond the financial support for her work. “There’s a lot of great people who study caregiving at USC,” she says. “I thought that it was a good opportunity to learn more from people who are expert in this field and broaden my research network.”
Increasing the Number of Diversity Researchers
In 2012, the Schaeffer Center launched USC-RCMAR, which is part of a network of 18 RCMAR programs funded by the National Institutes of Health. In 2018, USC-RCMAR was awarded a $2.7 million, five-year grant from the NIA to fund pilot projects focused on disparities in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Leading health economists, clinicians, aging researchers, other social scientists, survey methodologists and computer scientists collaborate as part of the RCMAR projects to promote new lines of research and increase the number, diversity and academic success of researchers focusing on the health and economic well-being of underrepresented older adults.
USC-AD RCMAR is led by Zissimopoulos and Dana Goldman, director of the USC Schaeffer Center, interim dean of the USC Price School, and Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, Pharmacy and Economics at USC.
Since its founding, the USC Schaeffer Center has funded 27 junior investigators as RCMAR scientists.