Weill Cornell Medicine Receives Grant to Establish Center to Help Older Adults with Cognitive Impairments

Dr. Sara Czaja. Photo credit: Ashley Jones

Weill Cornell Medicine has been awarded a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research to create a center aimed at developing technology to help older adults who have cognitive impairments (CIs).

The five-year, $4.625 million multi-institutional grant will fund a research and development project titled “Enhancing Neurocognitive Health, Abilities, Networks and Community Engagement (ENHANCE).” The new center, housed within Weill Cornell Medicine’s Center on Aging and Behavioral Research, led by Dr. Sara Czaja, will research and develop technology solutions that will improve daily living for older adults with CIs and advance the understanding of aging and cognitive disabilities.

The new center will be a collaboration with Florida State University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Walter Boot, professor of cognitive psychology at Florida State University will co-lead the Center. Dr. Czaja is already working with researchers at the two universities on projects that focus on developing innovative strategies and interventions to keep older adults independent and engaged in society. The new grant will allow all three institutions to collect data from a larger and more diverse sample size on the challenges older adults with cognitive impairments have in their communities and at home.  

The center will also include colleagues from Cornell’s Ithaca campus and Cornell Tech, who will help develop the new technologies.

“We’re absolutely thrilled because this grant expands previous collaborations, establishes new collaborations with the Departments of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and establishes a new area of research for us,” said Dr. Czaja, also a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “It is exciting that ENHANCE will also include researchers and students from three Cornell campuses.”

Cognitive impairments include memory loss, confusion, trouble learning new skills or other areas that affect a person’s everyday life. The ENHANCE program targets adults age 60 and older who have mild CIs, CIs due to stroke and CIs due to traumatic brain injury. 

“We’re looking at impairments that affect quality of life of those who experience them, as well as the family members who take care of these loved ones,” Dr. Czaja said. Because CIs increase with age, “we know with the increase in the aging population that the number of people with cognitive impairments will also increase.”

The research will include caregivers to gain a more complete picture of the challenges older adults with CI experience. “We hope that by facilitating the ability of older adults with CI to perform every day and community-living activities, we will also reduce the care and support demands for family caregivers,” Dr. Czaja said.

The new center will start with research that will identify this population’s challenges and support needs and preferences. A follow-up research project will develop and test an adaptive software system that supports memory, ​knowledge of resources, performance of everyday skills and social engagement. ​The program will adapt to the varying needs of the user.

A development project will then focus on creating tools around mobility—how older adults with CIs can better move around their communities. A second development project will develop a technology tool that will support memory activities, such as prompting the user to take medication ​or remembering appointments or important events.

“The new center will benefit society,” said Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, “by investing in emerging technologies that support medical and everyday lives of older adults, enhancing their independence and ability to live in their communities.”

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