If you or someone you care for is an older adult, you have probably wondered what healthy aging means and how you can pursue a healthier lifestyle. Maintaining physical and mental health are equally important to remain active and independent as long as possible.

As leaders in discovering, sharing and implementing the latest treatments and therapies, Wake Forest University School of Medicine is constantly working to advance care for older adults. The School of Medicine’s Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention is a state-of-the-art geriatric clinical and research center with a mission to foster vitality, independence and resilience by promoting optimal physical and brain health. It is the umbrella for a comprehensive array of programs, including the Claude Pepper Older Americans Independence Center, which is one of only 15 National Institute of Aging Pepper Centers in the U.S. with the School of Medicine serving as the coordinating center for the National Pepper Center Program.

A Vitamin a Day

Recently published research at the School of Medicine found that something as simple as a daily multivitamin may improve cognition and possibly protect against decline, another example of how our discoveries help improve our community. Additional studies are needed to confirm these findings before any health recommendations are made, but the initial results are a promising breakthrough that has garnered international media coverage.

Two hands with gloves on holding vitamins in the left hand and a cup in the right hand above a table.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and 1 in 3 seniors die with the disease or another form of dementia. “There’s an urgent need for safe and affordable interventions to protect cognition against decline in older adults,” said Laura D. Baker, PhD, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and co-principal investigator of the trial.

Tips for Aging Well

Making small changes to your daily life can help you live longer and better. The Sticht Center offers a free virtual community education program called “The Aging Well Series: Healthy Body – Healthy Brain.” This monthly series features world-class experts who share insights and meaningful tips on how older adults can live their best lives.

Healthy aging tips include:

  • Move more. Walking for 20-30 minutes every day improves balance, helps you sleep better, reduces stress and improves overall mood.
  • Get regular checkups. Visit your doctor for preventive services, not just when you’re sick. This can prevent disease or find it early, when treatment is more effective.
  • Be aware of changes in brain health. Everyone’s brain changes as they age, but dementia is not a normal part of aging. Stay engaged by reading and playing games.
  • Stay connected. Loneliness can increase risk for heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline.
  • Eat and drink healthy. Maintain a diet of nutrient-dense foods across all food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, protein foods, dairy products, and oils. Primarily consume beverages that are calorie-free – especially water – or that provide beneficial nutrients. Limit intake of coffee, tea, alcohol and sweetened beverages.
  • Don’t use tobacco. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you’ve been smoking, research confirms that even if you’re 60 or older and have been smoking for decades, quitting will improve your health.

The Starting Line: Walk On!

The Walk On! project is one example of how researchers have developed community programs that directly improve life for older adults. Walk On! sessions focus on long-distance walking and take place for one hour, two days a week for 12 weeks in a community setting. This program addresses the risk for mobility loss, and the social isolation that can accompany it, for older adults, many of whom need increased accessible opportunities to remain physically active and socially engaged. The long-term goal is to establish a model program that provides an opportunity for mobility-limited and socially-isolated older adults to go on safe and effective walks while forming social connections.

“Previous studies of older adults showed that 20% are less likely to have mobility loss if they walk regularly. We saw a real need to have a safe, social and successful community program,” said Barb Nicklas, PhD, deputy director of the Sticht Center and professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine.

A group of older adults stretching and exercising in a fitness class setting.

Nicklas and Justin B. Moore, PhD, associate professor of implementation science at the School of Medicine, worked with their Atrium Health colleagues, Mark Newman, PhD, assistant professor and research scientist of physical medicine and rehabilitation, and Mark Hirsch, PhD, a senior scientist, to implement the 12-week Walk On! program at two community sites. This enabled them to increase their reach and prove that Walk On! is a research-informed program that other groups can offer in their own communities. The ultimate goal is for the program to be adopted locally and scaled across the country.

What's Next?

Because of its prevalence, Alzheimer’s disease is also one of the costliest illnesses in the U.S. It currently has no cure, very few treatments and no way to reliably predict who is at increased risk for developing it. The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Wake Forest University School of Medicine focuses on research, education and potential treatments aimed at preventing or slowing Alzheimer’s disease, including: 

  • Developing a screening tool that could be applied easily in a primary care setting within approximately two years.
  • Examining metabolic and immune markers to try and understand some root causes of Alzheimer's.
  • Expanding the diversity of research study participants and of investigators, trainees and students at the center.
A woman in a pink shirt looking at the camera sitting next to a computer with brain scans on the screen.

“We want to develop a system that can be used easily and efficiently in primary care, that can more quickly identify people who might need to be monitored every year or two, and then, if a change in memory and thinking skills is detected, we can get on to their treatment much sooner. We want to have our health system ready so that when a new treatment is available, we know exactly who will benefit from it,” said Jeff Williamson, MD, associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Prioritizing your health and educating yourself with ways to age well will empower you to make an impact on wellness and independence. If you or someone you know is showing signs of memory loss, schedule an appointment at the Kulynych Memory Assessment Clinic at the Sticht Center. If you need to schedule other preventative care or health screenings, visit one of our primary care experts across the Piedmont Triad and greater Charlotte regions in North Carolina and the northwest, central and south regions of Georgia.