Winter 2016

The Right Balance

Gift supports research on nutrition, aging, inflammation and chronic disease

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Joan Cohn, J65, and Peter Cohn. Photo: Robert Caplin

When illness strikes, your immune system goes on the offensive, sending out chemicals that increase inflammation in your body to drive out harmful invaders, such as viruses or bacteria.

The system works well when it remains in balance, and the right amount of inflammation helps us recover from an infection or injury. But too much inflammation, and the body will attack itself and damage cells and tissues.

No one knows why, but as we age, our bodies seem to lose the ability to control inflammation, making us more vulnerable to age-related diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Finding a way to rein in inflammation is a main focus of the scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts. Joan Cohn, J65, and her husband, Peter Cohn, a physician, have made a generous gift to advance the study of inflammation and chronic disease in the aging process, and the role nutrition can play in keeping inflammation in balance within the body. Joan Cohn is a member of the board of advisors to the Friedman School, the HNRCA’s sister institution and key partner at Tufts.

No one knows why, but as we age, our bodies seem to lose the ability to control inflammation.

“This gift will advance the research and provide opportunities for graduate students, scientists and faculty,” says Simin Nikbin Meydani, director of the HNRCA and a professor of nutrition and immunology at the Friedman School and the Sackler School’s Graduate Program in Immunology at Tufts. She says she is grateful that the Cohns have provided additional funding for a public seminar on these issues 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, director of the HNRCA’s Neuroscience and Aging Lab. He studies how nutrition can improve the function of stem cells within the brain to help prevent such diseases as brain cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Other HNRCA researchers are looking at both whole foods and particular compounds within foods to determine 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 the inflammatory response as we age or helps prevent inflammation that occurs as a result of treatments 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.” —Brenda Conaway

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