URI Program in Gerontology awarded $1.9 million grant

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to continue helping older adults exercise, eat healthy

Earlier URI project helps hundreds eat better, exercise more

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 11, 2008 – The National Cancer Institute has awarded the University of Rhode Island’s Program in Gerontology a $1.9 million, five-year grant to continue encouraging East Providence older adults to exercise and eat fruits and vegetables.

The new award follows a $2.5 million, four-year federal grant awarded in 1999 to URI to stimulate healthy eating habits and exercise among older adults in East Providence. The original study, called The SENIOR (Study of Exercise and Nutrition in Older Rhode Islanders) Project, was based on URI Psychology Professor James O. Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model, which says that people trying to change their health-related behaviors go through a series of steps and that they are most successful when provided with a series of individually tailored interventions.

The new study, called The SENIOR Project II, will use some tactics from the original project, but it has been revised considerably based on experience gained during the first study. The initial study involving 1,300 senior citizens had four separate study groups, while the new one has only two—the treatment group consisting of individuals who maintained one or both of the healthy eating and exercise behaviors and a control group. Researchers are now seeking to enlist about half the participants from the original group in the new study.

“When we started this project in 1999, we wanted older adults to adopt the specific behaviors, eating vegetables and fruits and exercising,” said URI Gerontology Professor Philip G. Clark, director of the Program in Gerontology, which is part of the College of Human Science and Services. “At least half of the group maintained one or both of the healthy behaviors, and now the key is to see what interventions or strategies helped and continue to help older adults maintain those healthy lifestyles. We will be looking at how and why people continued to follow the program and what incentives will keep them motivated.”

The treatment group will be issued an integrated, two-behavior manual, receive a quarterly newsletter, receive two coaching calls, and be offered options for additional incentives. The second group will receive a different manual on other important health topics for older adults and quarterly newsletters. The goal is to determine if personal interventions lead to greater compliance.

The other critical element in the new project is the advancing ages of the participants.

“When we started in 1999, the average age of the participants was 75; now they will be in their early 80s,”Clark said. “Now that our participants are older, we will be able to examine additional challenges that might impede their ability to maintain healthy eating habits and exercise and provide them with strategies to keep them on track.”

When the second study is completed, URI researchers will have followed individuals who participated in both projects for 10 years.

Clark said if the project can demonstrate its effectiveness in maintaining healthy behaviors, then it could become a national model. He said he hopes to publish the research findings in a variety of scholarly journals.

“Those who participated in the first project enjoyed it, including the social interaction and the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. We told them that by participating, they were giving something back and helping future generations live healthier lives,” Clark said.

“Many have told us as we have begun work on this second project that if they have their health, they have everything. So they see participating in this as a way to invest in themselves.”