On June 10, 2015, the Columbia Aging Center announced news of our first cohort of Faculty Research Fellows. Download our press release here


Sunil K. Agrawal, PhD

Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Columbia University Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science


Fall-related accidents are the most common and serious problems among the very old. Given the increase in average life expectancy worldwide, the number of people who are more prone to falls is growing. Fall-prevention programs are rapidly becoming a priority for national health-care systems, not only to reduce costs but also to benefit the society as a whole. Recently, the Agrawal group at Columbia University has developed a novel cable actuated pelvic device, referred to as Active Tethered Pelvic Assist Device (A-TPAD). Cables are attached to a hip brace worn by a participant. A-TPAD can apply unexpected perturbations on the human pelvis during the gait cycle. The Agrawal group's recent study on healthy young adults shows that after a single training session the participants were able to adapt their reactive balance to perturbations and demonstrated greater stability in normal gait post-training. The goal of this project is to study perturbation-based training programs to reduce the risk of falls in the old.


Walter O. Bockting, PhD

Professor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry and Nursing) Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center


The first generation of openly identifying LGBT people is entering later life. This generation has seen unprecedented social change in terms of LGBT rights, yet little is known about their stigma-related challenges and needs. While LGBT older adults are less likely to have children and family of origin members as caregivers, they may be especially adept at establishing friendships, chosen families, and other forms of social support. The Social Convoys and Successful Aging project begins an in-depth examination of the nature of social support and caregiving networks of lesbian and gay older adults to better understand its role in the development of resilience. Findings will inform the development of interventions to reduce health disparities and promote quality of life among aging LGBT and other older adults.


Gina S. Lovasi, PhD

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, Department of Epidemiology, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health


America is an aging population. The number of U.S. adults over the age of 65 is expected to double by the year 2040. Research on aging will play an important role in extending years of healthy life, preventing disease, addressing health disparities, and facilitating independent living. Modifying the aging process at the community or population level, as opposed to the individual level, requires consideration of neighborhood effects on health.  Local environments, including economic resources, transit opportunities, safety, and products and services, have the potential to influence dietary intake, physical activity, and healthcare.  Over time, these environments change and people move to new homes, thus creating a complex relationship between older adults and their local environments.  Moving may be a stressful life event, but acute health changes may also provide the impetus for older adults to relocate.  For this project, the Lovasi team will use commercially available data on residential and social history through Lexis Nexis to examine changing environments for participants in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study.  The overall aim is to evaluate the feasibility of linking REGARDS data to Lexis Nexis data in order to determine the value of using available residential history data to characterize mobility and residential neighborhood environments over time.  The hope is that this work will support policy strategies directed at local environments and their role in chronic disease and healthy aging, with particular regard to racial disparities in health outcomes.



Edward Owusu-Ansah, PhD

Assistant Professor of Physiology &Cellular Biophysics Department of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics, Columbia University Medical Center


Aging can be broadly defined as the progressive decline of organismal function and quality of life. It is a multidimensional process caused by both biological and social factors. From a biological perspective, research in model organisms has identified nine cellular and molecular processes that contribute to the aging process. The nine hallmarks of aging are epigenetic alterations, loss of proteostasis (or protein homeostasis), deregulated nutrient sensing, mitochondrial dysfunction, cellular senescence, stem cell exhaustion, altered intercellular communication, genomic instability and telomere attrition. Interestingly, emerging evidence in humans suggests that social, behavioral and cultural factors that are critical in precipitating many aging phenotypes ultimately impinge on these nine hallmarks. The Owusu-Ansah group has developed a system in the fruit fly (Drosophila) to study mitochondrial protein homeostasis (or quality control). In previous studies, they showed that enhancing the expression of some mitochondrial quality control proteins in Drosophila muscles preserve mitochondrial function with age, delay the age-dependent deterioration in locomotory activity, and extend longevity. The overriding goal of this project is to unravel the exact molecular underpinnings of this phenotype, as well as how it is integrated with other aspects of protein homeostasis. Because the signaling mechanisms that regulate the aging process are likely to be conserved across organisms, we anticipate that identifying ways to alleviate aging in fruit flies, should ultimately have therapeutic value for humans as well.


Marcella D. Walker, MD, MS

Associate Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine (Endocrinology), College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University Medical Center


Cognitive decline has long been considered a “normal”, inevitable and irreversible part of aging. Recent work, however, suggests that vascular disease may contribute to changes in cognition often attributed to normal aging. Classic cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and diabetes, and others are important risk factors that contribute to vascular disease which may in turn lead to cognitive impairment or dementia. However, other unrecognized targets are likely to also be playing a role. Elevated serum parathyroid hormone (PTH) may be one such novel and reversible vascular risk factor for cognitive decline in the elderly. PTH is a hormone made by the parathyroid glands and is responsible for maintaining blood calcium levels within the normal range. However research suggests PTH, which increases with aging, also has vascular effects that may contribute to cognitive impairment and dementia. The exact mechanism by which this occurs is not clear. Using state of the art techniques including transcranial Doppler, carotid ultrasound and functional magnetic resonance imaging, the Walker team will investigate whether elevated PTH is associated with reduced cerebral blood flow and whether these changes contribute to cognitive dysfunction. These data may have broad public health significance. If the data support our hypothesis of PTH-dependent changes in cerebral vascular function and cognition, our concept of the role of PTH in human disease would be substantially altered. Because PTH levels increase with aging, this finding would identify a new potentially reversible contributor to cognitive decline and would be of great importance in our aging population.  Further, these data would have implications for a much larger and broader group of elderly patients, such as those with secondary hyperparathyroidism from vitamin D deficiency, chronic renal failure and other conditions.