Navigage, Rose Hills Foundations Support USC Leonard Davis School Research

New projects investigate cognitive screenings for Medicare patients, “jumping genes,” and sex-based health disparities.

From catching cognitive impairment earlier to understanding the genetics of age-related disease and health disparities, USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology faculty conduct exciting research supported by organizations committed to helping others.

The Navigage Foundation awarded grants for pilot research projects led by USC Leonard Davis faculty members Berenice Benayoun and Mireille Jacobson. Jacobson, an economist and associate professor of gerontology, is examining which Medicare patients receive cognitive screenings during annual wellness exams with Julie M. Zissimopoulos, associate professor in the USC Price School of Public Policy.

The annual wellness exams, which are fully covered under the Affordable Care Act, may be an excellent way to uncover and start treating mild cognitive impairment before problems become more serious, but physicians don’t always provide their patient with a cognitive screening or follow up regarding inconclusive results. Encouraging doctors to conduct the screenings could increase earlier diagnosis and treatment of reversible memory issues.

“Clinical diagnosis often occurs late in the disease trajectory, hindering timely treatment of reversible causes of memory loss,” Jacobson said. “Late diagnosis also complicates a patient’s need to develop clear and consistent medical, legal, and financial plans.”

The Navigage Foundation’s mission is to “support opportunities for timeless living through housing, health, education and human services for older adults,” according to the organization’s website. Their grant to Benayoun, assistant professor of gerontology, supports her investigation into transposable elements, or “jumping genes,” within the genome and their potential role in aging itself.

Using the short-lived African turquoise killifish as an animal model, Benayoun examines how these genes, which can insert themselves into different locations within the genome when activated and increase genomic instability, may play a role in age-related decline as they become more activated over time.

“Similar to humans, a large portion of the killifish’s genome is constituted of transposable elements and repeating sections,” Benayoun said. “This work will lay the necessary groundwork to investigate new interventions that may slow down age-related functional decline.”

Another of Benayoun’s projects is supported by the Rose Hills Foundation Innovator Grant Program Research Fellowship, which provides junior faculty members with funds to help create a self-sustaining research program in science, technology, engineering or math. The project employs a mouse model to examine how sex hormones influence the immune system, which may in turn play an important role in numerous health disparities between males and females.

“We hypothesize that natural fluctuations of sex-steroids throughout adult life have a major impact on health through their action on immune cells and systemic inflammation and mediate health and aging outcomes that vary between the sexes,” Benayoun said.