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Learn More About KIHA at the University of Denver

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Sylvia Morna Freitas

Student Content Writer

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The Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging (KIHA) at the University of Denver is a true embodiment of DU’s mission to serve the public good. Much more than a research institute, KIHA engages with a diverse community of actors to advance our understanding of aging and improve how people support and appreciate aging.

“We want to create a world that will be supportive to healthy aging,” says Dr. Briony Catlow, Director of KIHA. “And I think what young people miss is that we’re all aging… Our parents are aging, our grandparents are aging, our aunts and uncles are aging. You can see and experience how the world is aging differently depending on what stage of your life you’re in.”

With a focus on older adults, KIHA examines aging from multiple angles to create a holistic view of what it means to age healthfully. Its research is separated into four areas; basic science, clinical science, social science, and gerontechnology—developing technology to serve the geriatric population or the geriatric field. Within these units, faculty at KIHA conduct research on a plethora of topics.

“In the social science field, Dr. Kaipeng Wang does research on mental health and older adults as well as health disparities…. Dr. Leslie Hasche works on mental health and caregiving… From biology and chemistry, they’re working on different aspects of neurodegenerative diseases, and the mechanisms that we’re studying are a player in a multitude of different diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS [Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis],” Dr. Catlow says. “Engineering faculty work in the space of orthopedics, knee replacements, wearables, robotics… Eric Chess is clinical faculty. He’s an MD and a lawyer and he has the Financial Security and Public Health program. He also runs the Aging and Wellbeing initiative… There’s a concussion project… and they are working on this trifecta of measures including balance, cognition and biomarkers to be able to determine whether an athlete who has had a concussion can return safely to play to prevent long term brain damage from concussions.”

In addition to research, KIHA is very involved with the older adult community in Denver. 

“Once you retire, or you leave that field that you’ve been working in, a lot of times there can be really negative impacts. The highest population for suicide in men is early retirees,” says Dr. Catlow. 

With this vulnerability in mind, KIHA endeavors to decrease this trend with some of its community outreach. The institute hosts affinity-group events to bring together individuals with similar passions to encourage older adults to form friendships. Faculty also teach a class on retirement that discusses how to strategically develop friendships that can support you as you age.

“Relationships are absolutely everything,” Dr. Catlow says. “To be able to have people that you can call up and say, ‘Hey, you want to get coffee tomorrow…’ And then some other people that you can be like ‘So-and-so just got diagnosed with this…’ and then you hang up the phone and then they’re at your house in five minutes. You need to make sure that you’ve got a care circle established for whatever life throws at you.” 

Dr. Catlow went on to explain that there are many different ways older adults need support and that it’s a large and diverse field for current students at DU to engage with. 

One such student, Alice Andrastek, started working in KIHA’s labs when she was in her undergraduate degree for molecular biology at DU. Initially working on a project that studied how the immune system impacts diseases related to aging, Andrastek was hired as Operations Assistant and later promoted to Business Coordinator at KIHA once she graduated. 

“I felt like a student at the beginning because I was still learning everything firsthand, but it was an easy transition. I had great mentors,” Andrastek explains of her journey from student to staff at KIHA. “Now, my job is more out of the lab and more into the business field, which has been so different than everything that I learned in undergrad. In undergrad, I was solely science, and now I have totally widened my knowledge base and skill set. I found things that I’m good at that I didn’t know I was good at before.”

KIHA holds many such opportunities for students at DU to not only expand their experience and skill set in the labs, but also get summer research sponsored by the institute. In addition, it's the chance to have a direct benefit on the older adult community in Denver, and beyond. 

“There’s engineering groups that are working on robots to be social companions for older adults. The robots have lasers that can monitor the face of the individual. In Parkinson’s disease, a common comorbidity, or other condition, is depression,” Dr. Catlow explains. “The robot has a bank of faces. So essentially, you have a happy face, a flat face and an unhappy face. And if [the older adult] can’t communicate ‘I’m unhappy’ the robot can actually detect that based on their facial structure because it’s already been pre-programmed in. If they are unhappy, then there’s a whole library of different things that can happen. The robot can play a favorite song, or show them photos from the past that it knows cheer them up, or it could call their best friend, or their son, or their daughter.”

Dr. Catlow highlighted that bringing people into the field is more important than ever as the field is very underrepresented in the current workforce. 

“There’s only seven geriatricians in all of Colorado,” Dr. Catlow says.

Expanding the workforce not only in geriatrics, but also in the field of healthy aging is a main priority of KIHA. The Colorado Coalition for Aging Research and Education (CoCARE) is a collaboration of seven universities—University of Colorado Anschutz, University of Denver, Colorado State University, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Regis University, Metropolitan State University and Western Colorado Community College—from around the state that work together to push forward initiatives at the state level. 

One such initiative is targeted at incentivising people to go into the field of geriatrics and has already made it to the Colorado State Congress. 

“[CoCARE] wrote a bill that went to the state Congress. It got passed and it provided funding for anyone who had chosen to have a medical career in the field of geriatrics. You can apply for some of this funding to get some of your student loans waived,” Dr. Catlow says.

CoCARE is an opportunity to bring researchers together to discuss issues that support the entirety of the aging population. The coalition plans to have two conferences this year. One will be put on by the University of Colorado and the other will be hosted at DU in December.

In addition to CoCare, KIHA partners with several other organizations, like Dementia Friendly Denver and the Alzheimer’s Association, to host informational webinars for the older adult community and those who support them. To find out more about these seminars, visit KIHA’s News & Events page

“We want to spread the word about how wonderful the field of supporting older adults is and if you’re curious about it, feel free to stop by anytime,” Dr. Catlow says. “It’s so necessary—getting people involved in the field.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, their research and/or programs, visit KIHA’s website. In addition, KIHA’s concussion study has been selected for this year’s 1Day4DU event on May 18, 2023. Find out more information about 1Day4DU and how to support this influential study here.

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