(Published in LINKS: Minority Research & Training - Spring 2010 )
The Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Centers (OAICs, also sometimes referred to as Pepper Centers) were established over 20 years ago to “increase scientific knowledge that will lead to better ways to maintain or restore independence to older persons.” The centers honor the late Claude Denson Pepper, who, as a United States Senator (1936-1951) and United States Representative (1963-1989) from Florida, advocated for legislation that would help improve and preserve the quality of life for Americans with advancing age.
Today, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) supports 12 Pepper Centers across the United States. Each has its own particular research interests—some look at factors that contribute to disability, some study specific age-related conditions that lead to or increase risk for loss of function, and others design and test interventions that may prevent or delay disability.
Despite their unique identities and themes for investigation, the OAICs each have a similar structure with specific overarching goals. According to Kevin P. High, M.D., M.S., principal investigator of the OAIC Coordinating Center at Wake Forest University, “Each center is responsible for stimulating the translation between basic and clinical research. As part of this, the centers develop and test innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to address the needs of older people. This includes incorporating emerging technologies into their research design. In addition, the OAICs are to be a resource to other institutions. For example, the University of Texas Medical Branch OAIC is a critical component of the only World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Aging and Health in North America.”
In addition, High says that all the OIACs support young researchers and have successfully involved many young investigators from underrepresented populations. “Part of the goal of each OAIC is to mentor new researchers, providing them with career development opportunities,” he points out.
Several trainees along with more established research staff have a special interest in conducting studies focused on disability among minority populations. For example, members of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) OAIC also coordinate the six centers known as Resource Centers for Minority Aging Research (RCMAR) through the RCMAR National Coordinating Center at UCLA. The CARRIAGE Study (Carolinas Region Interaction of Aging, Genes, and Environment), conducted at Duke’s OAIC, is investigating the possible genetic biomarkers associated with osteoarthritis and early-onset heart disease in a large African American family (over 350 study participants). At Yale University’s OAIC, scientists conducted a qualitative research study using focus groups with African American and Latino seniors to determine what these underrepresented seniors perceive as barriers to participating in age-related research. The University of Florida OAIC studied how physical function (including walking speed and knee extension strength) can change as a result of weight loss and exercise in obese older African-American women compared to Caucasian women.
Along with conducting their own studies, Pepper Centers often collaborate with each other and other types of centers in larger projects. In 2009, four OAICs along with four other non-OAIC institutions received a $29.5 million grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) study. LIFE will test a physical activity-based intervention to prevent mobility disability among older people who are at risk of losing their ability to walk and to live independently in the community. Researchers will evaluate whether the intervention reduces the risk of disability and fall-related injuries and improves cognitive function, comparing it to a health education approach. More information about the LIFE study is available at: www.thelifestudy.org 
“Understanding and reducing the risk of disability for seniors is an important part of the NIA’s mission. The Pepper Centers do outstanding work that we hope will lead to interventions for maintaining functional independence well into old age,” said Evan Hadley, M.D., director of NIA’s Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology that funds the centers.
For general information about the OAICs including a map of their locations, please visit www.peppercenter.org .
For information about a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the difference in the prevalence and impact of arthritis among racial groups, please visit www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics.htm .
Johns Hopkins University,
Mt. Sinai University,
University of California, Los Angeles,
University of Florida,
University of Maryland,
University of Michigan,
University of Pittsburgh,
University of Texas Medical Branch,
Wake Forest University (coordinating center),