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Five questions with healthy aging researcher Britney Wardecker

Britney Wardecker, PhD, an assistant professor of nursing at Penn State College of Nursing, researches healthy aging in the LGBTQ community.

There are more than 50 million Americans who are aged 65 and older. According to the US Census Bureau, that number is expected to be nearly 84 million by 2050. Keeping older Americans healthy and maintaining their everyday lives will remain an important topic for years to come. But people age differently under different circumstances.

“One example I give in talking about my work is that it’s very interesting to think that in this day and age, somebody who may be in their 80s or 90s may not have been able to legally marry until they were in their 70s,” Wardecker said. “It’s interesting to think about how that kind of experience might shape your health and your aging compared to someone who is coming of age and may have been 12 in 2015 when gay marriage was legalized, and will now be growing up with that privilege.”

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute invested in Wardecker’s work through its Bridges to Translation pilot grant program. This program provides funding to Penn State researchers to explore novel research ideas and collect data to apply for more significant external grant funding. The next round of the program’s funding is expected to be announced later this year.

A full interview with Wardecker, including details of her pilot grant project, is available in episode 12 of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Engage Podcast. Each episode educates listeners about the research process and how Penn State is improving our neighbors’ and communities’ health. A monthly community-focused newsletter further explores podcast topics. The latest edition is available here. Engage Podcast also is highlighted through a Linked In Spotlight page here.

How did you get interested in this work?

Wardecker: I started with my PhD in psychology at the University of Michigan. I was doing a lot of health-related work, thinking about what predicts why people experience health in the ways that they do. And then, I joined the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State, where I started thinking about healthy aging, and why do some people age in more healthy ways and others do not? I combined that with my interest in LGBTQ communities. Most people know what LGBTQ means, but in case not, it’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities. It’s a gray area in what we know about LGBTQ people, in general, after early adulthood.

What is healthy aging?

Wardecker: It could be multiple things. We know that older LGBTQ adults are less likely to be married because they weren’t able to. Less likely to have children. That’s one example: thinking about what’s the context? Are people aging alone? Are they lonely? Do they have a lot of social support? Other things are they aging with resources? What is their ability to access health care? Do they feel comfortable accessing that healthcare? So traditionally, it’s pretty common for the LGBTQ community to mistrust medical systems because of previous experiences of discrimination or the HIV crisis stigma. These types of experiences then can play out into older adulthood when people need to be going to doctor’s offices or hospitals more often. And maybe they are fearful of that because of previous experiences of mistreatment.

How is loneliness a factor?

Wardecker: There’s kind of an interesting dichotomy with loneliness in the LGBTQ community because one is that, yes, LGBTQ people tend to report that they’re more lonely, especially in older age. That can then lead to a lot of different health outcomes. Physical health can be associated with depression, heart disease and cognitive problems. But then also there is a resilience factor for the LGBTQ community. Many LGBTQ people, maybe years ago, were disowned by their family or may not have as many biological or legal ties but have also flipped that coin and have something called families of choice.

Families of choice are people within the community that serve different roles for you. So maybe LGBTQ people use a friend to take them to their doctor appointments. They have those roles filled but maybe just in non-traditional ways that we might think of. Many LGBTQ adults report that they do have a lot of community within the LGBTQ community. So, they feel supported. It’s a two-sided coin.

What is your goal?

Wardecker: Everything we do is to think about how we can improve health in the LGBTQ community and decrease health disparities. These health disparities exist across all ages for LGBTQ people. So, our goal is to think about how we can think about capturing their preferences, making sure that’s integrated into their care, and then looking at what that effect has on their aging processes or just everyday living. Are they feeling less lonely, more supported? Do they feel more trust in the medical healthcare system daily? Do they feel more likely to be honest about their health status or who their partner is, or anything that revolves around their life that’s very important to them?

What kind of collaborations are you open to?

Wardecker: Our department and Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute are very interested in interdisciplinary and team collaboration. I prioritize collaboration in my work. The most important collaborations to me are communicating and working with people that I’m studying.

The Clinical and Translational Science Institute has a beautiful model where we can have a community advisory board and get the opinions and thoughts of people in the community who are living the lives that we’re trying to study. Getting their perspectives and having them design research with us.

And then, I also do collaborate with many people within the College of Nursing. Winnie Adebayo is an assistant professor in nursing who also does LGBTQ work and Cara Exten as well. We all collaborate in different ways on different projects. We collaborate with people in Hershey. We’ve been working with some experts in advanced care directives to help us through some of the newer ideas we have regarding LGBTQ people and advanced care directives.

About Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute provides tools, services and training to make health research more efficient at Penn State. It advocates for translational science at the university and is a bridge between basic scientists and clinical researchers. The institute encourages collaboration to discover new treatments, medical procedures and ways to diagnose disease. Learn more at Receive the institute’s weekly newsletter by signing up here.

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