Older man peers out window.
Eighteen research projects — including three that focus on the cognitive and mental health of older adults — were awarded financial support this year from the Presidential Research Quest Fund. (Getty Images)

Quest Fund awardees share a common goal: improving the human condition

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Virginia Commonwealth University researchers studying how to prevent and assess dementias among older adults and improve their access to mental health services won support from the 2019 Presidential Research Quest Fund.

Eighteen research projects were awarded $500,000 this year from the fund (and received additional funds from faculty schools and departments). The Presidential Research Quest Fund supports faculty projects that specifically align with the goals and key strategies presented in VCU’s Quest 2025: Together We Transform strategic plan.

“The awardees represent a diversity of disciplines, but they share a common focus. Their commitment to improving the human condition through research that is dedicated to social, economic and health success is a unifying link that will benefit those living in Virginia and around the world,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

Awarded projects range from testing new theories and interventions addressing critical health problems such as breast cancer, leukemia and Alzheimer’s disease, to societal issues including suicide prevention, housing stability and internet security. 

With the growing older population boosting the numbers of individuals with dementia and needing mental health services, three separate projects receiving funding focus on the cognitive and mental health of older adults.

Lana Sargent, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, will examine socioeconomic factors that might affect the outcome of tests used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in older adults. Factors that generally influence the interpretation of cognitive assessment tools include race and ethnicity due to language and cultural differences.

Sargent proposes to assess these factors among a group of low-income minority residents in high-rise housing units to whom her team already provides care. These individuals are on average 73 years old, the majority are black or African American, most received less than a 12th-grade education, and their monthly income is less than $1,000.

“This study addresses an important problem in that low socioeconomic status community-dwelling older adults are a high-priority risk group for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias due to having some of the greatest frequency of risk factors including high levels of disability, shorter lifespans, and limited opportunities for innovative interventions,” Sargent said. Her study is called “Socially Relevant Approaches to the Detection of Dementia in Older Adults in Community-Based Settings.”

“Often, the way a question is asked or the use of innovative technology such as an iPad may not be appropriate for use in older adults. It is important to test, listen to their perceptions, and adjust the tools to meet their needs,” Sargent said.

Faika Zanjani, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Gerontology, will explore a health coaching approach for preventing Alzheimer’s disease. The project, “Alzheimer’s Disease: Behavioral Risk Reduction,” is part of the iCubed Health and Wellness in Aging Population Core and the Richmond Health and Wellness Program care coordination clinic. 

Twenty racially diverse Richmonders age 60 and older, who have diabetes and an annual income of less than $12,000, will be offered health education, training in problem-solving skills, coaching and referral services where needed to target risk factors for dementia. Participants will choose which behavior they want to change, such as alcohol use, physical inactivity, smoking or isolation.

Zanjani’s findings could create the impetus for larger studies and help disseminate findings to improve the lives of at-risk, low-income aging adults.

The susceptibility of a population to Alzheimer’s disease is not determined by income, but is determined to a large extent by the history of income-related modifiable lifestyle risk factors.

This project is an initial attempt to include anti-ageism components in a health coaching behavioral intervention to address Alzheimer’s behavioral risk reduction at a personal level, within a racially diverse low-income group,” Zanjani said.

Kyeongmo Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work, seeks to understand why minority older adults living in racially segregated neighborhoods are less likely to use mental health services than their white counterparts. His project is “Effects of Residential Segregation on Older Adults’ Use of Mental Health Services.”

Accessing mental health services is key to the well-being of older adults. Avoiding these services could delay detection and treatment and lead to disease or disability, Kim said. He noted that Medicare’s annual wellness visit includes counseling for depression, but less than 20% of older adults received that service in 2015.

His work will draw on data from neighborhoods in 400 counties across the country to examine the use of mental health services among 7,786 adults 65 and older living in racially segregated neighborhoods.

Other 2019 awardees are:

  • Sasha Waters Freyer, School of the Arts, “Bruce Conner and the Soul Stirrers”
  • Mayoor Mohan, Ph.D., School of Business, “Managing Customer-Based Brand Equity in Business-to-Business-to-Consumer and Mixed Business Model Settings”
  • Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., College of Humanities and Sciences, “#DoesAnybodyCare: Encouraging Suicide-Related Bystander Behavior on Instagram”
  • Yue Sun, Ph.D., School of Dentistry, “A Novel Phosphoinositide-Regulated Molecular Nexus in HNSCC Progression”
  • Seb Prohn, Ph.D., School of Education, “Evaluation of CHAT: Communication and Health Advocacy Training for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD)”
  • Changqing Luo, Ph.D., College of Engineering, “Decentralized Coordination on Blockchain for Mobile Edge Computing Enabled IoT Systems”
  • John Wilson, M.D., Ph.D., College of Engineering, “Improving the Early Detection and Risk-stratification of Diverse Aortopathies Using Novel Quantitative Biomechanical MRI: A Pilot Study in Patients at High Risk of Future Type B Aortic Dissection”
  • John Speich, Ph.D., College of Engineering, “Novel Hemodynamic Metrics to Differentiate Brain and Bladder Influences in Overactive Bladder”
  • Sarah Rothschild, Ph.D., Center for Life Sciences Education, “The Role of Calcium Signaling in Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia”
  • Kaitlin Bountress, Ph.D., School of Medicine, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Misuse: Examining Shared Genetic and Fear-Based Risk Factors”
  • Aamer Syed, M.D., School of Medicine, “High-Dose Intravenous Vitamin C as an Adjunctive Treatment for Sepsis in Rwanda: A Feasibility Trial”
  • Dayanjan Wijesinghe, Ph.D., School of Pharmacy, “Investigation of the Lipidome for the Risk Stratification in Kidney Transplant Patients”
  • Guizhi Zhu, Ph.D., School of Pharmacy, “Ligand-Free Drug Delivery for Untargetable Triple Negative Breast Cancer”
  • Diane Derr, Ph.D., School of the Arts in Qatar, “Configuring Kommos: Narrative in Event, Place, and Memory”
  • Kathryn Howell, Ph.D., L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, “Housing Stability from the Ground Up: Youth Empowerment through Eviction Research”