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USC Davis symposium reports on advances in aging research

USC Davis School of Gerontology Dean Pinchas Cohen with Dean's Medallion recipient Mike Yamano, chancellor of Yamano College (Photo/Christine McDowell)

Trojans of all scientific stripes shone at the USC Davis School of Gerontology’s fourth annual interdisciplinary symposium “What’s Hot in Aging Research at USC.”

Organized by USC Davis Assistant Professor Sean Curran and Associate Dean Maria Henke, the conference was held on April 22 under the subtitle “Integrated Approaches to the Study of Aging.”

“I’m so delighted to see such an incredible turnout to this event. There’s so much exciting new work being done at our school and at USC,” said USC Davis Dean Pinchas Cohen. “Aging is at the forefront of what we think about as a society; it’s where our resources are being channeled; it is the lens through which we see the challenges and opportunities of the future.”

Curran chaired the first session, titled “Nutrition, Metabolism, Aging,” which examined the biology and genetics behind longevity. Fielding questions about growth hormone injections, organic food and the role of the mitochondria in cellular aging, Valter Longo and  Changhan Lee of USC Davis and John Tower of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences provided the scientific basis for the day’s remaining programs.

The second session, “The Future of Aging,” was chaired by Assistant Professor Susan Enguidanos, who began the panel with a discussion of end-of-life care trends, transitions and trepidations. Next up was Professor Elizabeth Zelinski, who discussed the brain’s changing cognition with age after describing the Flynn Effect, which shows steady generational improvements for 18-year-olds in their ability to do well on IQ tests.

“So, like you’ve always thought, you are indeed smarter than your parents,” she joked. “Like your kids think … they’re probably smarter than you.”

The panel closed with Assistant Professor Tara Gruenewald discussing the role of generativity — or the care, concern and cultivation directed toward younger generations — in helping people age with greater reports of happiness and health.

Before breaking for lunch, Cohen surprised everyone by presenting the Dean’s Medallion to attendee Mike Yamano, chancellor of Tokyo’s Yamano College.

“This is the greatest honor we can give to our partners and supporters, and I am honored to recognize the distinguished career and contributions of Mike Yamano. A true gerontology ambassador, he has helped revolutionize the field with his innovative recognition of the link between aging and aesthetics,” Cohen said. “To quote Mike’s lifelong friend and the head of the USC Davis School Board of Councilors, Dr. Richard King, ‘Mike is a visionary, an entrepreneur and, most of all, a person with a fine spirit. I am so proud to have him and Yamano College associated with the USC Davis School.’ ”

Said Yamano: “Dr. Cohen, USC and attendees: I am so honored. Thank you —this is indeed a surprise. I have been surprised many times in my 77 years, but the best and most beautiful surprise is to see so many wonderful people studying gerontology.”

After a lunchtime networking session, University Professor Caleb Finch discussed his recent “mummy study” of atherosclerosis. He also chaired the third session, “The Aging Brain,” which included his USC Davis colleague Mara Mather discussing the positivity effect of older adults’ cognition. Assistant Professor Dion Dickman of USC Dornsife covered homeostasis and plasticity.

The final session, “Emerging Scholars,” was moderated by Curran, who gave USC Davis postdoctoral researchers and doctoral students an opportunity to present their work.

Apolipoprotein E isoforms, a pain management smartphone app and a study on the unique health resilience of long-lived smokers were discussed by Mafalda Cacciottolo, Jeff Laguna and Morgan Levine, respectively. As the conference wrapped up, Jennifer Ailshire presented her study on air pollution and the aging body and brain, which was of particular interest to Southern Californians.

“LA has the highest level of fine particulates in the country. We’re all a vulnerable population. There’s a daily growing body of evidence showing the harmful effects of particulate air pollution, including respiratory and cardiovascular damage and compromised brain health and development,” Ailshire said. “The good news is that this is all preventable. We can all do something about air pollution. We all deserve to breathe clean air, regardless of where we live.”

Concluding the symposium, Cohen said: “As always, it’s our pleasure to highlight the world-changing work USC researchers in all disciplines are doing. What’s hot in aging? USC research is!”

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