FAU receives NIH grant to enhance social engagement in older adults

FAU nursing, neuroscience and physics researchers join forces on the ‘mathematics of relatedness’


Credit: Florida Atlantic University

Vibrant social relationships are a critical component of healthy aging. Strong relationships provide emotional support and well-being, promote brain health, and can even slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases. However, the aging process can create challenges for older adults in their social interactions, leading to unbalanced interactions and potentially a withdrawal from cognitive and social activities with others. Social isolation in older adults has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To address these challenges, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing have received a two-year, $675,000 grant from the National Institute of Aging, National Institutes of Health, to test a mathematical model designed to optimize social and physical engagement in this population.

The project titled, “The Mathematics of Relatedness: Social Affordances in Behavioral and Cognitive Aging,” is an interdisciplinary grant that interweaves two research efforts, combining the expertise of researchers in social and behavioral neuroscience, mathematical physics and gerontology, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias. The objective of the study is to identify strategies that will facilitate and enhance social interactions with and among older adults and counter age-related decline by pinpointing activities that will allow the social life of older adults to flourish.

The research team includes Emmanuelle Tognoli, Ph.D., a research professor in the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences, FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and a member of the FAU Brain Institute; Christopher Beetle, Ph.D., an associate professor of physics, FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science; and Christine Williams, DNSc, professor emeritus, FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing.

The researchers will develop a theoretical model of social interactions, including parameters to emulate changes in individual behavior due to aging. This model will allow the researchers to simulate virtual experiments of interactions among diverse groups using a computer. The goal of the simulations is to identify systemic factors that lead to engagement or retreat from social interactions in older adults. In a tightly connected empirical arm, the researchers will observe social interactions in heterogeneous groups including older adults to understand how slowing and diminishing sensorimotor resources can be counter-balanced by the right choice of social partners and activities.

Tognoli, a social neuroscientist, studies complex systems that include neural, behavioral, cognitive and social systems within a dynamical framework. She is especially interested in coordination dynamics and the synchronization of phases, which allow neuroscientists to theorize, predict, detect and understand the telltale signs of functional interactions in a number of empirical situations. Tognoli emphasizes that the systemic issue of an older person encountering very different outcomes depending on the social context of their interactions with others is at the forefront of complexity science.

Beetle, whose research expertise includes classical and quantum gravity, says that the benefits of the project not only apply to nursing practice, but to general theories of social behavior. He will lead the modeling effort. By comparing the models’ predictions to real-world observations, the researchers will be able to quantify the importance of diversity in homogeneous social groups, which has largely been neglected in prior models.

Williams will lead the empirical work at FAU’s Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center, operated by FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, which is designed to serve the community as well as enable breakthrough research that enriches a science-based approach to care. The center is spearheaded by María de los Ángeles Ordóñez, D.N.P., A.P.R.N., director and an associate professor. The center’s mission is to meet the complex needs of individuals with memory disorders, such as AD, and their families through a comprehensive array of services, compassionate and innovative programs of care, research and education. As a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, Williams has conducted extensive research with older adults and the problems of coping with cognitive impairment and health disparities.

With this NIH grant, the researchers hope to develop cost-effective responses to keep older members of society engaged and healthier. With the rapidly growing population of older adults, the payoff of this innovative work in social complexity could be a significant scientific advance with real-world socioeconomic impacts.


About Florida Atlantic University:

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU’s world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of critical areas that form the basis of its strategic plan: Healthy aging, biotech, coastal and marine issues, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, informatics, lifespan and the environment. These areas provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU’s existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit fau.edu.

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