The vibrant, diverse brain health community at Illinois is working to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing societal health challenges in fields including aging; learning, memory and plasticity; nutrition and cognition; neuroengineering; neuro-and socio-genomics; bioinformatics; and more. More than 300 faculty and staff on the Urbana-Champaign campus identify as researchers in the brain health space—regardless of their home department affiliation. These researchers are using leading-edge imaging tools, pioneering studies that progress from the lab to clinical applications with the goal of improving the health and lives of people everywhere.
Susan Aguiñaga, PhD
Department of Kinesiology and Community Health
Susan Aguiñaga, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health and the College of Applied Health Sciences. Through her research, she hopes to increase diversity in dementia-related research and reverse growing disparities in physical activity and dementia-related diseases, with the ultimate goal of creating culturally appropriate physical activity interventions for racially and ethnically diverse older adults with cognitive impairment and dementia-related diseases.
Explain your research in brain health; what are you investigating?
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is projected to increase to nearly 14 million by 2060. AD represents a tremendous burden on the individual, families, and the healthcare system. Currently, there is no cure for AD; however, strong evidence suggests that lifestyle risk factors, such as physical activity and adherence to healthy diets may reduce the risk for AD. My laboratory examines the relationship between physical activity, diet, and cognition and conducts culturally tailored physical activity and dietary community-based interventions among older Latinos. We specifically focus on older Latinos as older Latinos are 1.5 times more likely to develop AD compared to non-Latino whites. Latinos are also disproportionately affected by chronic diseases, putting them at an increased risk for cognitive impairment. Through our community-based interventions, we aim to increase physical activity levels and improve healthy diets in order to ameliorate chronic disease and reduce the risk of cognitive impairment.
How are you conducting your research?
We are currently conducting a prospective study aimed to examine diet, cognition, physical activity, and quality of life of Latinos ages 50+. Using these data, we will examine the relationships between physical activity, diet, quality of life, and cognitive function among older Latinos. This upcoming fall, we will begin a pilot randomized controlled study where we will examine changes in cognitive outcomes in older Latinos randomized to: a) dance and diet intervention or b) dance only.
How does being part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
Being a part of the Illinois community has fostered connections and collaborations with several faculty members across campus and in the community. My work is interdisciplinary, so connecting with folks from the Division of Nutritional Sciences, School of Social Work, Human Development and Family Studies, and the Beckman Institute enhances my work.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
Through our work, we envision empowering our communities to lead healthier lives through physical activity and healthier diets, and ultimately reducing their risk for cognitive decline. The long-term goal of our research is to develop interventions that are sustainable and enjoyed by communities so that our elders can lead long and healthy lives.
What led to your interest in this area of study?
My interest in physical activity, cognition, and health disparities stems from my graduate-level training. I completed my master’s and PhD with Dr. David X. Marquez at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through his studies, I worked with hundreds of older Latinos and gained extensive experience in community-based intervention research methodology. I heard countless stories of the negative outcomes that arise from health disparities and inequities, but also saw the resilience, determination, and desire to lead healthier lives. These stories and experiences have served as the impetus for my research.