From Monkey Studies to Eldercare, Irish Researchers at Forefront of Aging

From Monkey Studies to Eldercare, Irish Researchers at Forefront of Aging

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Photo: Dr. Rozalyn Anderson of University of Wisconsin. (Peter McDermott/Irish Echo)

ORLANDO, Fla.--Some would say geriatrician Orla Sheehan is a specialist. She, however, regards herself a generalist.

“With all the specialties, you concentrate on one part of the patient,” said Sheehan, who is a physician. “With geriatrics you look after the whole patient. It’s not just their medical needs; it’s their social needs. It’s a real multidisciplinary approach to patient care.”

The multidisciplinary approach defines, too, the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, where the Dublin-raised and -educated Sheehan chaired a conference session about strokes. She was one of more than

A Meeting of Many Minds

Dublin geriatrician Desmond O’Neill, MD, found the subject of wisdom coming up again and again at November’s Gerontological Society of America (GSA) Annual Scientific Meeting in Orlando. Recognized as one of world’s leading physicians in aging, he attended to deliver his featured lecturer as winner of the society’s prestigious Samuel T. Freeman Award.

O’Neill, the first European recipient in the award’s 37-year history, noted in an interview, “GSA is probably the premier networking organization for researchers in aging.”

A physician at Tallaght Hospital and Trinity College, Dublin, O’Neill, titled his award lecture, “Expanding the Imaginarium of Geriatric Medicine.” Explaining that what he most enjoys about GSA’s annual meeting of many minds--4,000 experts offering hundreds of presentations in many disciplines in aging “is the receptiveness here” to collaboration and new ideas.

O’Neill, an Irish Times columnist and a blogger for the British Medical Journal, said interdisciplinary research from biochemistry to social science is a “maturing area where you’re actually willing to have your own discipline’s way of doing business questioned.”

One session O’Neill attended looked at whether wisdom could be measured with a questionnaire or via vignettes of personal experience. O’Neill, commented, “Are older people truly wiser? I would definitely think that older drivers are definitely wiser.”

The arts and aging is one of his special interests. “We had a wonderful session about esthetic deprivation in health care settings and the significance of interventions in art,” he said, “and particularly trying to avoid treating it like a medication where you give X-amount of art and you get Y-amount of result.”

O’Neill said, “We’re seeing in Ireland that research in aging is not just about health. It’s about how you live your life and it’s about how you experience it. So I think we’re lucky to have this range of researchers.”

--Peter McDermott

4,000 experts in aging who attended the recent conference.

GSA’s members are experts not only from throughout the United States, but also represent more than 50 countries, including Ireland. Irish researchers, whether based back at home or abroad, have an increasing profile in the study of aging from biochemistry to the social sciences.

Sheehan, who graduated from medical school at University College Dublin and later got a PhD in stroke medicine, moved two years ago from Dublin with her oncologist husband and pre-school children to work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

Findings for Patients, Caregivers

One focus of her research, she said, looks “at the burden on the person caring for the stroke victim -- whether they find it a positive or negative experience and how it affects their health.”

Rónán O’Caoimh is another young Irish researcher who followed up an MD with his PhD. He trained and works as a geriatrician at the Center for Gerontology and Rehabilitation at University College Cork (UCC).

At the UCC center, known for its work on end-of-life care, he said, “We’ve developed an integrated health care pathway” combining multiple therapeutic approaches to help patients as needed.
O’Caoimh also presented a paper on dementia, one of his own post-doctoral area of study.

Rozalyn Anderson, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Department of Medicine, explained, “I’ve been studying caloric restriction, which is a dietary intervention that delays aging and the onset of age-associated disease.”

Anderson, from Dalkey, Co. Dublin, continued, “I’m lucky enough to be part of one of the big monkey caloric-restriction (CR) studies. It’s pretty high profile. We’re doing some great work looking at what’s happening as a function of age.”

Caloric restriction, which has shown for many years that certain animal species live longer if kept on reduced diets, is a key area of longevity research.

“With CR, we can tease out what’s the underlying basis for improved resilience and protection against age-associated disease in terms of delay and onset, but also attenuated progression,” she said.

Anderson first attended the GSA meeting while doing her post-doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School. Eventually she and her husband, who is from the U.S., settled in Wisconsin with their children, and she regularly visits her family in Dublin.

Over the years, she said, her research gone from “yeast to mice [and] from mice to monkeys.” The results, she said, show “improvements in health and survival, indicating almost certainly that this is translatable to human health and human aging.”

The good news about food, she said, seems to be that “very stringent restriction might not be necessary to get the benefits of caloric restriction.”

Anderson has been named a GSA Fellow, a status acknowledging a researcher’s scientific achievements and dedicated service to the organization. That includes her five years so far on the GSA’s Task Force on Minority Issues in Aging.

Protecting Older Workers

Áine Ní Léime, PhD, usually works with the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, but is currently on a two-year European Union Marie Curie fellowship, based at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

“I’m looking at extended working life, the way people have to work longer than they used to,” Ní Léime said.

Her research is comparing older workers in Ireland and the U.S., with a particular emphasis on gender differences. She observed, “There’s a much longer history of working at an older age in the U.S. than there is in Ireland.”

For instance, in 2000, slightly over a quarter of Irish women and just over half of American women 55-64 were in the labor force. Ireland has since been catching up in that regard, but in the 65-or-older category it’s still only five percent, about one-third that in this country.

“There was equality legislation much earlier here in the U.S., but in Ireland there’s more protection for part-time workers and we’ve more maternity leave and that kind of thing,” Ní Léime said.

Pension provision in Ireland is better, too, she said, but there’s almost exactly the same pension gender gap, with both countries lagging behind most others in the industrialized West.

Ní Léime is also studying the differences between people in secure positions and those in more precarious low-paying jobs. On the latter group, she said, “It’s really difficult for them to get work and certainly to hold on to it if they’re sick.”

She added that many careers -- for example, those in health care and construction –- are physically demanding and don’t lend themselves well to a longer working life.

Ireland, despite that, is phasing in an official retirement age of 68 to rise gradually by 2028. “It’s an even steeper increase than here [in the U.S.],” said the native of Louisburgh, Co. Mayo. “It was presented as a fait accompli. It wasn’t debated.”

The Sadness of Self-Neglect

Self-neglect in older adults is the research focus of Mary Rose Day, PhD, MPH, also a lecturer at University College Cork. She described the sad decline of many seniors into self-neglect as “an emerging, pervasive, complex and challenging problem.”

Day added, “The self-neglecters’ lives depict helplessness, fear, isolation, loss and disconnection from communities and families.”

Such cases, which community nurses and other health- and social-care professionals deal with on a daily basis, she said “can present significant demands and ethical challenges.”

Des O'neill.jpg 

Photo: Dr. Des O’Neill, of Tallaght Hospital and Trinity College Dublin, speaking in Orlando at the Gerontological Society of America meeting. (Peter Derkx/GSA)

Day’s presentations at the GSA conference focused on developments in measuring self-neglect for clinical and research purposes. In one international symposium she was able to present comparative findings with colleagues from England and the United States. She is also coediting a textbook about self-neglect with colleagues from the U.S.

Former Priest’s Retirement Mission

Michael Creedon, PhD, came to America in 1964 and stayed. At present, Creedon lectures regularly to U.S. government employees on retirement and is conducting research at Virginia’s Radford University on federal employee attitudes toward retirement.

Born in Inchigeela, Co. Cork, the 2nd of 14 children, to parents who owned and ran local businesses, he studied for the priesthood at All Hallows College in Dublin. He was ordained for the Diocese of Richmond, Va., serving for nine years in the Norfolk region.

Creedon took a leave of absence in 1973 –- eventually leaving the priesthood and marrying. He completed a master’s degree and then a doctorate in social welfare, with a focus on gerontology, at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 1979. Since then he has had a wide-ranging career in gerontology with universities, government in several countries, nonprofits and corporations.

“My commitment to older persons was nurtured in Ireland and strengthened by my service inthe priesthood,” Creedon said.

Peter McDermott wrote a longer version of this article for New York-based
Irish Echo with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation.