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The Right Balance

Gift boosts research on nutrition, aging, and disease

When illness strikes, your immune system goes on attack, sending out chemicals that increase inflammation in your body to drive out harmful invaders such as viruses or bacteria. This system works well when it remains in balance. The right amount of inflammation helps us heal from infection or injury. But too much inflammation and the body turns on itself, damaging cells and tissues.

No one knows exactly why, but as we age, our body seems to lose the ability to control inflammation. This makes us more vulnerable to age-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Solving this mystery is a main focus for the scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA). Joan Cohn, Ph.D., J65, and her husband, Dr. Peter Cohn, have made a generous gift to help them unlock the secrets of aging, inflammation, and chronic disease, and the role nutrition can play in keeping inflammation in balance within the body. Joan Cohn is an advisor to the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the HNRCA’s sister institution and key partner at Tufts.

“This gift will advance the research and provide opportunities for graduate students, scientists, and faculty,” says Simin Nikbin Meydani, D.V.M., Ph.D., A09P, director of the HNRCA and professor of nutrition and immunology at the Friedman School and the Tufts Sackler Graduate Program in Immunology. She is grateful that the Cohns have provided additional funding for a seminar connected to this topic for the Tufts community and the general public this year.

“This support will allow us to look at the way food and particular nutrients facilitate, for example, good cognitive function as we age and also deter cancer,” says Dennis Steindler, Ph.D., senior scientist and director of the HNRCA’s Neuroscience and Aging Lab. Steindler studies how diet and nutrition can improve the function of stem cells within the brain to help prevent diseases such as brain cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Other researchers at the HNRCA are looking at both whole foods and particular compounds of foods and their effects on inflammation. For example, certain compounds in blueberries may help improve mental fitness in older adults. Meydani and her colleagues have conducted research on the effect of EGCG, a compound in green tea, on autoimmune diseases. Other studies will focus on how diet interacts with genes to improve inflammatory responses as we age or helps prevent inflammation due to medical therapies like chemotherapy.

“This gift is very timely, and I think that the Cohns are very forward looking in providing support for this area of research and education,” Meydani says. “We have uncovered just the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the role of inflammation and nutrition in preventing chronic diseases. The potential is huge for making advances in this area.”