UAA researchers receive national grant to improve health of older Alaskans
July 1, 2022 | View PDF
Alaska has the fastest-growing older adult population of any state in the country, and their health and well-being are at risk. As obesity rates among older adults continue to increase nationwide, so does their susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, early mortality, decreased physical functioning, and quality of life. One UAA research team is on a mission to improve the quality of life of older adults through an innovative hope-based education program aimed at fostering positive behaviors that fight obesity at its most common root: sedentary behaviors coupled with imbalanced diets.
Assistant professor of Health Sciences Britteny M. Howell and her team have received a $382,750 research grant from the National Institute on Aging for her project, “A Health Education Program to Increase Hope and Improve Energy Balance among Seniors in the Urban Subarctic.”
“The grant not only provides us an opportunity to pursue research, but also builds research infrastructure at UAA and positions the university to be a leader in gerontological research,” said Howell. “In addition to conducting this important work with older adults, the project has a dual purpose to also expose undergraduate and graduate students in the health professions to the research process and strengthen the research environment of our institution.”
UAA’s Healthy Aging Lab has hired eight undergraduate research assistants and one graduate research assistant for the 2022-2023 academic year. The 15-week health promotion program is designed to improve the fruit and vegetable intake and physical activity of older adults. Students will provide that programming to four independent living communities in Anchorage and Eagle River and analyze the impacts on the recipients of the training.
“Student-led programs create intergenerational learning opportunities, where student research assistants and older participants can form relationships and learn from each other. This is important because college students today often have very little contact or experience with older adults. However, most students in the health professions will end up working with older adult clients or patients at some point in their lives,” said Howell.
While this type of education has been shown to improve the health of older adults, behavioral changes are often difficult to maintain. This curriculum will differ in its use of a Persuasive Hope Theory (PHT) based model and aims to explore the effectiveness of PHT for diverse older adults struggling with negative self-perceptions and health disparities.
“PHT programs attempt to convey positive messages that specifically elicit the emotion of hope in order to increase self-efficacy and motivation for behavior change,” said Howell. PHT programs exist for several populations and are often used with youth and younger adults but are less commonly used with aging populations. The program will address behavioral changes while focusing on shifting commonly held negative views on aging, dispel negative stereotypes, and elicit feelings of hope and optimism.
“This makes the program novel but also addresses a real need to demonstrate the effectiveness of PHT-informed interventions across the lifespan, since older adults are often left out of typical clinical and translational research studies,” said Howell.