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Gifford, Bell land development awards in aging research

Sep. 10, 2015, 9:22 AM

Two faculty members of the Vanderbilt Memory and Alzheimer’s Center are among a handful of 2015 scholars for the Paul B. Beeson Career Development Awards in Aging Research Program.

Clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor of Neurology Katherine Gifford, Psy.D., and geriatric cardiologist and assistant professor of Medicine Susan Bell, MBBS, MSCI, have received the awards and will learn who the other scholars are in October.

Katherine Gifford, Psy.D.

Nationwide, only seven to eight scholars have been chosen in recent years, and the 2015 recipients will receive awards of $600,000 to $800,000.

Gifford will identify the best questions primary care providers should ask in determining whether patients require a detailed evaluation for cognitive decline. Bell will dive deep into the impact of cardiovascular mechanisms on physical frailty and cognitive decline.

Susan Bell, MBBS, MSCI

Four years ago Medicare officials directed primary care providers to assess memory loss as part of an annual wellness visit, but no streamlined protocol has been developed for that process. Gifford will conduct a complex statistical analysis to narrow a list of possible questions down to five or 10.

“They could just be a part of the patient check-in process,” Gifford said. “A nurse or medical assistant could administer them. Then the doctor could say ‘This response pattern is a flag. Let me ask a few more questions to determine if a referral is needed.’”

Bell became intrigued with frailty after noticing differences in outcomes with older patients with heart disease.

“You are three times more likely to have a worse outcome if you are physically frail,” Bell said. “Being frail represents a loss of reserve in response to a stressor. You just don’t respond the same way, and you tend to have a downward spiral into disability and functional decline.”
While much has been published about this link, little is known about the cardiovascular mechanisms that may cause frailty to develop or worsen, she said.

The two researchers are the second and third Beeson scholars to come from Vanderbilt, following E. Wesley Ely, M.D., MPH, who was a 2001 recipient. Memory & Alzheimer’s Center Director Angela Jefferson, Ph.D., was a 2007 recipient while at Boston University and Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance Director Consuelo Wilkins, M.D., was a 2006 recipient while at Washington University.

Jefferson will mentor Gifford and Bell as they pursue their research and receive specialized training through the Beeson career development program.

The fact that two Vanderbilt faculty — affiliated with an Alzheimer’s center that was established only three years ago — received this award in the same year is significant, Jefferson said.

“I think it speaks to how cognitive and cardiovascular aging are becoming more and more prominent areas of research on campus,” Jefferson said. “It emphasizes the quality of aging research that’s being put forth by our Vanderbilt faculty.”

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