University of Florida Health has raised the bar for improving the lives of seniors in America’s Healthiest Hometown® by opening a new research center that aims to predict, prevent and cure health problems that impact wellness in a customized and personal way — at the individual and community level.
The UF Health Precision Health Research Center – The Villages® will conduct research projects that combine individual genomics, lifestyle and community/environmental risk factors to tailor strategies for healthy living by bridging the gap between science and the community.
Genes, behaviors — such as exercise and eating habits — and environmental factors all impact a person’s health, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal of precision health is measure these factors in an individual and act on them.
In collaboration with scientists from a diverse range of disciplines, researchers at the 3,700-square-foot facility on the campus of UF Health The Villages® Hospital will conduct a mix of community-based research — such as population health studies, observational studies, community interventions, program and technology evaluations — and clinical research, including clinical trials and health education interventions.
UF Health Precision Health Research Center – The Villages® is guided by a community advisory board composed of local residents and is founded on a community-based participatory research, or CBPR, approach that ensures the community has a strong voice in the work it carries out.
“From the program’s onset, it was critical that we adopt a CBPR approach for our work, and the first step in that approach is listening,” said Carla VandeWeerd, Ph.D., director of the UF Health Precision Health Research Center – The Villages®. VandeWeerd is an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics.
“The center’s first project is to conduct a series of focus groups with area residents age 65 and over to assess and explore their unique health concerns and challenges,” she said. “This important data will form the basis for the types of research projects we pursue. Moreover, our community advisory board will review and approve all projects prior to their launch, ensuring that we are not operating in a vacuum, disconnected from our community.”
To date, more than 5,000 members of the community have joined a registry established to provide updates about the programs and to alert registrants about upcoming research studies. That number is expected to grow over the coming months.
“UF Health is honored to be positioned at the forefront of medical breakthroughs made possible only by our continuous development and support of robust, university-based research programs,” said Colleen G. Koch, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., dean of the UF College of Medicine. “Being able to offer precision health research in The Villages®, America’s Healthiest Hometown®, represents an unprecedented opportunity for us to truly reshape medicine, including preventive care, so that our friends and neighbors can live longer, healthier lives.”
For VandeWeerd, this research is not only her life’s work, it’s personal.
“Early in my career, I was involved with a research study focused on senior adults,” she said. “During that time, I observed that many of the negative health outcomes could have been avoided by placing more of a focus on the person’s overall health and well-being. Many of these individuals dedicated their lives to giving to others. I want to make sure the work we do in this center will help our seniors enjoy healthy and vibrant golden years.”