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Aging During COVID-19

Fels Cancer Institute for Personalized Medicine holds third annual mini symposium on aging

News May 28, 2021

SkorskiThe COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on America’s older adults, with eight out of every ten COVID-19 deaths occurring in people 65 and older. For that reason, the Fels Cancer Institute for Personalized Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine chose to make the intersection of aging and COVID-19 the theme of its third annual mini symposium on aging, held virtually this year on May 7. 

The day-long symposium, organized by Bassel Sawaya, PhD, and moderated by Carmen Sapienza, PhD, Fels Professors, included nine research presentations by scientists and clinicians representing prominent institutions across the country, including the National Institute on Aging, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Rowan University, and the Katz School of Medicine, among others

“COVID has underscored in dramatic fashion – and in a compressed time frame – what we already knew: that the fundamental mechanisms of aging open the gates to infection risk, incidence, severity and mortality,” said Fels Director Tomasz Skorski, MD, PhD, in his opening remarks. “And the risk for infection, hospitalization and death increases exponentially with age,” he added. “For people 65 to 74, it’s 1,300-times what it is for children and teens. For people 75 to 84, it’s 3,200-times higher.”

Also welcoming attendees were Temple University Provost Joanne Epps, JD, and Steven Houser, PhD, FAHA, Senior Associate Dean for Research at the Katz School of Medicine. Provost Epps thanked the presenters for addressing both COVID-19 and aging. “Improving our grasp on both is clearly essential to society,” she said.

Dr. Houser commented that the work the presenters are doing in the biology of aging is “foundational to what all of us do in science.”

“I know what we’re all trying to do is not just add years to our lives but to add quality years to our lives. From a personal standpoint, I urge all of my scientist colleagues to work as quickly as you can, because we’re all getting older,” he quipped.

Robert TorresThe symposium’s keynote speaker was Robert Torres, Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging, who has been dealing with an unprecedented nexus of challenges related to COVID-19. Torres gave symposium attendees a wide-ranging overview of the state of aging in Pennsylvania, the kinds of support services his department provides, and the opportunities technology presents to help with clinical and social issues around aging, among other topics.    

In terms of population age, “Pennsylvania is the fifth oldest state in the nation,” Torres said. “One out of every four of our residents is over age 60 – a figure that will rise to one in three over the next decade. The challenge is, how do we adjust what we’re doing, how do we become more efficient, how do we collaborate to increase our capacity to meet the demand that’s here and coming?”

Increasing the number of partnerships forged between the Commonwealth, universities, and healthcare institutions is key to meeting these challenges, he said.  

“For example, we are already partnering with Temple University’s Institute on Protective Services to certify protective service workers and to develop an online training course,” he said, “And with Temple’s Institute on Disabilities to increase technology use and training among older adults statewide.”

Next came nine scientific presentations on aging – and COVID-19 –  covering various topics at the molecular, clinical, and population levels.  

“This has been an illuminating day for us all,” Dr. Skorski said at the conclusion of the symposium. “While COVID-19 has been a monumental challenge to the world, the pandemic has opened new opportunities for research to help lead us to greater understanding.”

- Giselle Zayon