LDI Senior Fellow Iliana Kohler won a National Academy of Medicine (NAM) Award

February 2021 | Iliana Kohler

University of Pennsylvania team led by School of Arts & Sciences Assistant Research Professor and LDI Senior Fellow Iliana Kohler has won a National Academy of Medicine (NAM) Healthy Longevity Global Grand Challenge Catalyst Award supporting aging and health-related research in Malawi, Africa.

Entitled Leveraging Social Networks and Linkage to Care to Foster Healthy Aging in a Low-Income Context,” the Kohler project is in keeping with the international scope of the NAM program that gave Catalyst Awards to research teams in the US, UK, European Union, Israel, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Tanzania.

Two awards for Penn
The Malawi project is one of 124 receiving Catalyst Awards in the first round of NAM’s new program and Penn received two of those research awards. The proposed aging research work is an offshoot of the Malawi Longitudinal Study of Families and Health (MLSFH) run by Penn’s Population Studies Center (PSC) and Population Aging Research Center (PARC) for two decades.

“Our study population in Malawi broadly represents the living conditions of large numbers of individuals living in poor sub-Saharan countries, so the relevance of our work extends beyond Malawi,” explained Kohler, PhD, who is also Associate Director of the Penn Population Studies Center.

Accelerated aging in Malawi
“Aging has a very different dynamic in this context,” said Kohler. “Forty-years old in Malawi is not like 40-years old in the U.S. or Europe. We call it accelerated aging. In Malawi there are no retirement homes or long-term care institutions or anything like that. The village and the family are all there is.”

The Penn team’s Catalyst work is aimed at understanding how social networks — physical rather than electronic networks — could be used to more effectively disseminate elder health information about non-communicable diseases throughout a country lacking the mass communications infrastructure of industrialized nations.

Founded by NAM and launched in December of 2019 in collaboration with the National Institute on Aging (NIH), the Healthy Longevity Global Grand Challenge Catalyst program is essentially a global innovation tournament designed to accelerate scientific advances related to health care and the elderly.

Urgent need
The NAM website explains, “At the current pace, population aging is poised to impose a significant strain on economies, health systems, and social structures worldwide. Multidisciplinary solutions are urgently needed to maximize the number of years lived in good health and a state of well-being.”

The first phase of the three-year Catalyst program will provide seed funding to 450 research projects. The second phase will provide $500,000 each to two select finalists. The third and final phase will be a $5 million grand prize to the research team that has achieved “a breakthrough innovation that extends the human health span.”

The grant to Kohler’s team supports research done in collaboration with policymakers from the Malawi Ministry of Health & Population, the Department of Disability and Elderly Affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare and researchers from the College of Medicine (COM) in Blantyre.

Kohler meets with village heads, representatives, teachers and members of village health committees in Mchinji.

The Penn research fieldwork team outside Rewards Lodge, in Mchinji, Malawi, where the project’s basecamp is located. The group includes team managers and four Penn PhD students.