Spring 2024 COAH Champion: Amal A. Wanigatunga, PhD, MPH, FACSM

Dr. Wanigatunga presented to the International Conference on Frailty and Sarcopenia in Toulouse, France (2023).

The Center is pleased to announce that the Spring 2024 COAH Champion honor is bestowed upon our Core Faculty member Dr. Amal A. Wanigatunga, Assistant Professor with the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health (BSPH).  Dr. Wanigatunga’s research focuses on: physical activity and sedentary behavior; technology; wearables; aging; disability; and dementia.  Also, he is a key contributor at BSPH’s ENGAGE Lab, which aims to understand changes in physical activity and energy expenditure with aging, and how they contribute to changes in physical and cognitive health.

Tony Teano:  Congratulations on being pronounced the COAH Champion for the Spring Term! And thank you for taking the time to answer a few personal and professional questions that will allow us to get to know you better as an academic researcher and as a real person. To start, please tell us about your background, education, and path to COAH.

Dr. Wanigatunga:  I was born in Staten Island, New York, but I spent almost all of my childhood in New Jersey and Florida. I completed all my undergraduate and graduate training at the University of Florida (Go Gators!). Both my parents are chemists, so I naturally went into chemistry for my undergraduate degree. After graduating, I completed an ORISE fellowship at the CDC focused on toxic chemical biomonitoring from everyday products. It was there I first saw an epidemiologist using the data we collected and making inferences at a population level. This is where I was introduced to public health and prevention. Afterwards, I went to get my MPH, and I met a fantastic exercise physiologist and epidemiologist, Dr. Todd Manini. He showed me that you can learn so much about someone’s health just by the way they move and function. This got me hooked into physical activity and aging research. Under Todd’s mentorship, I earned my epidemiology PhD and gerontology certificate and through his collaborations, met Dr. Jennifer Schrack (now our COAH director). She convinced me to join her as a postdoctoral fellow at Hopkins, and the rest is history!

Tony Teano:  I think it is amazing how the influence of a few people are oftentimes the great catalysts for life-changing pathways to open up before us!  And you continue to participate in research collaborations about aging and physical activity with amazing colleagues, not the least of which is Dr. Schrack. As you reflect on your prolific research, what paper are you most known for or most proud of?

Dr. Wanigatunga delivers talk at the Gerontological Society of America annual meeting held in Tampa, Florida (2023).

Dr. Wanigatunga:  It is difficult to select one paper—they all contribute to the science in their own unique way. Most people know me through my research using accelerometry to measure physical activity. Some of our most cited work examines the various ways we can extract useful measures of physical activity and see how they are related to health. As of right now, a large body of research focuses on exercise and its influence on brain health. So, I think some of the most interesting papers we recently published or are getting ready to publish are where we challenge readers to also think how the brain controls movement-based behavior by showing evidence to this relationship. These papers suggest we might be able to capture early aging- and disease-specific patterns of daily movement loss. For example, in relation to brain disorders like dementia, capturing subtle and specific changes in movement might inform early screening efforts to detect and intervene on preventable declines in cognition.

Tony Teano:  That’s a great example of how your research is directly applicable to real people today facing real challenges in the now.  I appreciate research that can be translated and implemented very quickly from bench to bedside. Why did you decide to focus on this area—aging and movement?

Dr. Wanigatunga:  Physical activity is involved with nearly everything intrinsically and extrinsically when related to health. Aging is inescapable—often described as entropy—and it is one of the most understood health risk factors. The intersection of both physical activity and aging nearly affects everyone globally. One of the most promising ways to maintain a high quality of life as we age (or slow intrinsic entropy) is to be active! Yet, being active is not just willpower, motivation, or driven by goals–but it is also largely determined by context and extrinsic factors (e.g., environmental build, access to medications, etc.). I see a lot still needs to be done in the worlds of physical activity and in aging, but much can be effectively accomplished when combining both fields together.

Tony Teano:  Tell us more about encompassing aging and also physical activity as a combined research topic. What are you currently researching in this space?

Dr. Wanigatunga:  I think the main driver to why we are so physically inactive these days is because of unintended consequences of technological advances—which increase convenience and extend life, but also “engineer” activity out of our lifestyles and possibly increase life lived with debility. To me, there is an immediate need to “re-engineer” activity back into our daily lives that require less effort than structured exercise, but as effectively improve quality of physical and mental health. My main focus is finding simple and effective ways to replace excessive sitting with very light physical activity. The goal is to study ways sedentary behavior reduction can be used as an effective first step towards initiating an active lifestyle. While—dare I say—everyone knows exercise is good for health, there are very real barriers to engaging in an active lifestyle. These barriers expand and are magnified with age. Yet, engaging in any amount of activity (above and beyond the daily routine) seems to be beneficial not only for the body but also for the mind, regardless of age. I think addressing this need is most impactful among our older adult populations, who often (and largely unintentionally) experience ageism from their family, friends, and even practitioners who operate under the misguided notion that “slowing down” or “being inactive” is normal for older adults.

Tony Teano:  That is an interesting paradox with unforeseen consequences. I’m so glad you’re bringing rigorous data to these questions through your research findings, and seeking practical, workable solutions from which many will undoubtedly benefit. It has to be gratifying work. So… what is the best and worst part of your job?

Pictured left to right: Drs. Jennifer Schrack, Pablo Martinez Amezcua, Patrick Donahue, Francesca Marino, Fangyu Liu, Karen Bandeen-Roche, and Amal Wanigatunga (2024).

Dr. Wanigatunga:  The best part of my job is that I get to work with amazing people who inspire me and who share similar priorities towards caring about the health and interconnectedness of our communities. The worst part of my job is seeing trainees and collaborators eventually leave, but I am happy they are going on to do great things!

Tony Teano:  Those are very kind-hearted sentiments. And, yes, from looking at your research collaborations, I can see that you team up with some amazing, dynamic people, who—like you—have keen insights as researchers and who are otherwise also great people.  Now, let’s pivot to a few personal questions. Over the last few years, it seems like burnout has been a trending topic.  It takes practice to form habits that rejuvenate the self.  Please tell is about any hobbies or interests that give you an opportunity to relax, refresh, and renew.

 

Dr. and Mrs. Wanigatunga at Maui, Hawaii, over Christmas break (2022).

Dr. Wanigatunga:  My wife, Sarah, and I try to go out once a week or two to unplug. We have a two-year-old son, Kian, and I love chasing him around and learning the world from the ground up with him. Also, I played a lot of sports when I was younger, but it has narrowed to largely just tennis. I like to work out and one thing that crosses my personal and professional interest is trying different work out programs available to the general public (e.g., HIIT, dance, shadow boxing, etc.) to see how different people create popular exercise programs. I also like all things technology and DIY, which can be an expensive hobby. I build my own computers, and these days I am learning to develop the software that goes with the hardware. Lastly, my old college buddies and I keep in touch by playing computer games together (e.g., Rocket League) when we can swing it.  And as far as board games go it has been a while since I played, but Gloomhaven is really fun!

 

A DIY computer by Dr. Wanigatunga

 

Tony Teano: That’s a very well-rounded assortment of activities that are really quite holistic when taken altogether—to nurture treasured relationships and be social, and to keep the body and mind fit and active!  You’re a great role-model!  Now let’s talk about a few of your personal favorites in popular culture. Who are you a fan of in the entertainment industry?

Dr. Wanigatunga:  There are so many films I love but one that always makes me laugh and feel good is Galaxy Quest. There are so many big names in that movie, but one of my all-time favorite actors in it is Sam Rockwell!  Also, I’m a fan of The Office.

Tony Teano:  Clearly, you have a great sense of humor!  Is there any additional fun fact to know and tell you’d like us to know about your home life, family, where you grew up, etc.?

Dr. Wanigatunga:  When I was in elementary school, we could spend our PE class learning how to juggle. I spent so much time learning to juggle during that time that I can juggle scarves, balls (up to four), rings, and pins.

Tony Teano:  I think it might be time for a COAH Talent Show! That is wonderful.  And I’m sure that skill fascinates your two-year-old, and amuses children of all ages. Since I know you’re juggling a lot of things—including several forthcoming research papers—I will bring this interview to a close. Thanks again so much for allowing us to get to know you better.

Dr. Wanigatunga amuses and amazes Kian, his two-year-old son, with juggling.

Recent Research:

Keep up-to-date with Dr. Wanigatunga’s research; follow him on X (former Twitter) @AmalForResearch. 

 

 

 

By Anthony L. Teano, MLA
Communications Specialist

 

Brain Health Awareness Month: COAH’s Dr. Marilyn Albert to Present at #BrainMatters Webinar on Weds., 6/12, 7-8pm

COAH Senior Associate Faculty Dr. Marilyn Albert will present on lifestyle factors that may influence risk for cognitive decline as part of the next #BrainMatters webinar slated for Wed., June 12 from 7-8pm, for which you may register here.

Dr. Albert is a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins (JH), and Director of the JH Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (JHADRC)—which is a co-sponsor of #BrainMatters. Dr. Albert’s research focuses on the cognitive and brain changes associated with aging and memory loss. Her work has delineated the cognitive changes associated with aging and the earliest phases of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), as well as lifestyle factors that promote maintenance of mental abilities with advancing age.

Following her presentation, Dr. Albert will join a panel discussion on lifestyle factors, the importance of early detection, and research participation. The panel will additionally include two JHADRC research participants, Mr. Willie Powers of central Virginia, and Ms. Teriko Epps, a former caregiver and Baltimore-based author, as well as Dr. Janero Hernandez with Kaiser Permanente in Maryland.

COAH Communications Specialist, Anthony L. Teano, MLA, will host the webinar along with Dr. Corinne Pettigrew, Outreach Team Leader with the JHADRC. The event will be moderated by JoAnn Scipio, MSN, RN, with the Anne Arundel County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. They are all co-founders of #BrainMatters–a community-based regional collaboration that is dedicated to sharing science-based information about brain health, health disparities, memory loss & Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, along with representatives from the Greater Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, the Columbia (MD) Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., the JHAD-RCMAR, and the Global Council on Brain Health.

 

By Anthony L. Teano, MLA
Communications Specialist

 

Exit Interview with former COAH Director, Dr. David L. Roth

We couldn’t resist the temptation to highlight some of Dr. Roth’s recent works and ask him a few more questions on the record before he retires. 

Tony Teano: Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you again, Dr. Roth. I have a few questions for you about your latest research, as well as a few personal questions for you as you retire. Let’s start with research. Since January 2023, 18 articles were published on which you were part of the research team. Over the past year, which paper was most interesting to you as a researcher and why? 

Dr. Roth:  I would say the paper that we published in Research on Aging last year on inflammation levels in family caregivers (Roth, D. L., Bentley, J. P., Mukaz, D. K., Haley, W. E., Walston, J. D., & Bandeen-Roche, K. (2023): Transitions to family caregiving and latent variables of systemic inflammation over time.  Research on Aging, 45, 173-184)This paper re-examined whether family caregivers have changes to their circulating inflammation levels and incorporated advances in measurement methods that can be used when multiple correlated biomarker measures are availableWe found no differences between caregivers and non-caregiving controls on a traditional group of biomarkers (interleukin-6, C-reactive protein) but did find differences on a set of biomarkers thought to have more inhibitory effects (interleukin-2 and interleukin-10)Building off of our previous papers, this analysis highlighted the complexities involved when examining associations between psychological states, such caregiving stress, and biological vulnerabilities, such as biomarkers of stress and inflammation in blood samples.  

Tony Teano: Last month, you gave a talk as part of your work with COAH’s Family & Social Resources Working Group, titled, “Can Advocacy Co-Exist with Objectivity?”  In an age where research around various social justice issues can be charged, this is a very important question. In a nutshell, what are the main takeaways from your talk? 

Dr. Roth: The image of the objective scientist who doesn’t really care what the research findings are is a myth, a fantasyResearchers have values, agendas, and are advocates for certain positions, populations, theories, or treatment approaches, making complete objectivity impossible.  However, for scientists and researchers, advocacy needs to be better balanced with the very important principle of truth-seekingIn my opinion, too many researchers have become cherry pickers, emphasizing papers and findings that support their narratives and positions, while ignoring or dismissing contrary evidence or alternative explanationsI believe that we need to strengthen the objective, truth-seeking aspect of science, and be more cautious and even-handed in our conclusions, so that the public trust in science and research can be restored.   

Tony Teano: I recall once asking you what you would be doing if you weren’t a researcher, and part of your reply acknowledged fear of boredom while juxtaposing that against the fact that research is always fresh, challenging, and changing. As you enter into retirement, what will you do to keep yourself from being bored?

Dr. Roth: I plan to travel a lot, but also to consult and stay active intellectuallyI hope to continue some academic pursuits, as a Professor Emeritus, including continuing to identify and expose unhealthy and misleading biases in certain corners of the published research literatureAs long as I stay active, curious, and open to new experiences, then I hope boredom will not become a serious problem. 

Tony Teano: What do you perceive as the most significant part your legacy at COAH?

Dr. Roth:  I think we have substantially expanded the scope of the Center over the past decade.  We have experts and contacts with colleagues in virtually every area of human aging, including cognition, physical frailty, mobility, disability, sensory functioning, family and social aspects, healthcare utilization, and international perspectives on agingWe have established several working groups that served as good mechanisms for building new collaborations and for maintaining consistent momentum on our many projects and priorities.  I hope that this inclusive, expansive, collaborative spirit will live on, and I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to contribute to that here at Johns Hopkins.

Tony Teano: What are the keys to finding joy, meaning, and purpose in a career? And in life?

Dr. Roth: I think being open-minded, trying different things, and working with different kinds of peopleI advise students and trainees to figure out what you are good at, partly by seeing what others value in you, and then seek to improve even more in those areasI believe that interests follow from and develop from activitiesTry it first, and then see if you like it, and are good at itSome people seem to be overly constrained by their own pre-existing ideas of what their interests are or who they want to associate withI think that can be limiting, and I like to be more open and exploratory in this regard. 

Tony Teano: Dr. Roth, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I know I am not alone in saying that you will be missed as part of the COAH team, and that I wish you all the best for a wonderful, active retirement full of joy and great experiences! 

As an investigator, Dr. Roth has contributed at least one meaningful, original, peer-reviewed, data-based research publication across a diverse range of topics every year for the past 39 consecutive years.  Here is a sampling of some of the influential and highly cited papers by him and his colleagues: 

 Prior blogs about or by Dr. Roth: 

 

By Anthony L. Teano, MLA
Communications Specialist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Large Language Models (LLMs) for Medicine challenges and opportunities

Mark H. Dredze, PhD is the John C. Malone Professor of Computer Science and the Director of Research (Foundations of AI) for the Johns Hopkins University Data Science and AI Institute.  Dr. Dredze work involves developing Artificial Intelligence Systems based on natural language processing and explores applications to public health and medicine.  He will present “Large Language Models (LLMs) for Medicine challenges and opportunities” at the next scientific seminar being held on Monday, June 3 from 3:30pm – 5:00pm.  The seminar will take place at 2024 E. Monument Street, Powe Room 1-500Q.  We encourage you to attend in person but a zoom option s available by registering at https://bit.ly/49tlGLF.  Light refreshments will be served.

This event is sponsored by: The Matthew Tayback, Sc.D., Memorial Lecture Fund; Center on Aging & Health; Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology; Johns Hopkins Older Americans Independence Center; Epidemiology and Biostatistics of Aging Training Program.