U. of U. professor sets sights on healthy aging

Education » Research focuses on keeping a widowed spouse healthy.
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Utah's champion of healthy aging likes to say that aging doesn't start at age 65.

Michael Caserta, the first holder of the endowed chair on the topic at the University of Utah's College of Nursing, took his healthy turn at age 29. He replaced cigarettes with carrots and started running, albeit just to a stop sign and back.

Today, the 55-year-old exercises one hour a day -- whether it's weight lifting, walking or yoga.

"We're all aging individuals. We're aging from the moment we're conceived," he said this week. "The key is you want to keep as many of those last years of your life free of disability" as possible.

Helping Utahns stay healthy as they grow older will be Caserta's focus as the U.'s first chairman of healthy aging. The New Jersey native, who got his master's degree in medical sociology and doctorate in health education at the U., teaches health promotion at the College of Nursing. He also coordinates the school's gerontology program and is a member of the U.'s Center on Aging.

The new position -- officially called the Presidential Endowed Chair in Healthy Aging in the College of Nursing -- means part of his salary will be devoted to furthering aging research, both his own and others' work.

The position, which starts in July, was funded with $1.25 million from the late Robert Rice and his wife Joyce in 2008. Interest earned on the gift will pay for part of Caserta's salary.

The Rices -- whose name graces the U.'s Rice Eccles Stadium -- built their fortune on fitness. Robert Rice opened Salt Lake City's first gym in 1952, which eventually grew into European Health Spas Inc., the world's largest fitness chain at the time. A year later, the body builder (who was once too thin to play high school football) won the Mr. Utah contest. Rice died of cancer in 2007 and is survived by his wife.

One of Caserta's research interests is helping spouses stay healthy after the death of a loved one. Maureen Keefe, who helped pick Caserta as the dean of the College of Nursing, said his work on spousal bereavement wasn't why he was chosen, though she now considers it a "bit of serendipity."

She said he was picked after a year-long national search because of his academic background.

"It's a delightful surprise to have the top scholar in your own backyard," she said. "He's really going to take the program to another level and really focus on people in their community, in their homes, how do they define healthy aging, what services do we need to provide."

Utah has one of the nation's fastest growing populations of people age 65 and older. National estimates show one-third of people over that age are widowed. The portion grows to two-thirds after age 85.

While typical widow and widower support groups focus on coping with grief, Caserta and his U. colleagues have published several studies on ways to help them care for themselves. That's because people who are grieving tend to neglect nutrition and physical and social activities. Plus, the surviving spouse may struggle with day-to-day healthy living, such as meal planning, managing money and maintaining his or her home, if that was the primary role of the deceased spouse.

Caserta knows how health can spiral out of control after loss: When his grandfather died, he saw his grandmother's diabetes go "out of control." She lost not only her spouse, but the person who helped her manage her disease, reminding her when to check her blood sugar levels and when to eat.

He helped create a support group that provided new widows and widowers information on stress, medication and finance management, nutrition for one, social functioning as a single person and maintaining a safe home.

Caserta recalls a participant in one of his studies who didn't change a light bulb in her living room for some time, because that was her husband's role. While that woman was fine, Caserta imagines a woman with osteoporosis could fall and break her hip such a situation.

He hopes his research will cause a "paradigm shift" in the type of support the bereaved are given.

"This is a daunting responsibility to do what I can do ... to facilitate the vision of Bob and Joyce Rice," he said.