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  February 5, 2001

Canadian Physician Named to Chair in Geriatrics

A Canadian physician has been named holder of the Travelers Chair in Geriatrics and Gerontology at the UConn Health Center, as well as head of UConn's Center on Aging and director of the Division of Geriatric Medicine.

George A. Kuchel comes to the Health Center from McGill University in Montreal, where he was an associate professor in the Department of Medicine and director of the Division of Geriatric Medicine at McGill University Health Center.

A researcher as well as clinician, Kuchel's lab work centers on synaptic plasticity and the factors which allow the nervous system to maintain a normal structure and function in later life. He is also looking at the ability of bladder muscle cells and their innervation to promote normal bladder contraction and continence in old age.

Kuchel is an advocate of a multi-disciplinary approach to clinical care and research. In clinical geriatrics, elderly individuals often present with multiple symptoms requiring a variety of treatments. A multi-disciplinary approach is also crucial in order to make significant breakthroughs in research, improve understanding of the aging process and develop more effective intervention strategies.

Kuchel is a graduate of McGill Medical School, where he also trained in internal medicine. He completed a geriatric fellowship at Beth Israel Hospital and the Division on Aging at Harvard Medical School, followed by post-doctoral research training at Harvard and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in internal medicine and geriatrics, as well as a diplomate in internal medicine of the National Board of Internal Medicine in the United States and the Quebec Professional Corporation of Physicians.

Kuchel says a number of factors made the Health Center position attractive. "The UConn Center on Aging already holds one of the strongest groups of geriatricians and gerontologists in the country," he says.

He cites a number of robust Center on Aging research initiatives, including those on osteoporosis, hormone replacement therapy, health outcomes research and the genetics of aging. He says other areas of strength at the University, with possibilities for expanded collaborative research, include: strong basic science departments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, allied health sciences and social work.

Demographic trends suggest geriatrics will become increasingly important. In 2000, more than 476,000 individuals in Connecticut - 14.4 percent of the state's population - were 65 years old and older. Since 1980, the elderly population has grown 22.2 percent, compared to 5.8 percent for the population at large. Although there are only approximately 50,000 individuals 85 years and older in Connecticut, this population - sometimes called the "oldest old" - often requires the most medical care and attention and numbers have been growing at a dizzying rate. For example, the population of the "oldest old" increased 109.6 percent between 1970 and 1990. These trends are expected to continue, as the first members of the Baby Boom generation begin to turn 65 in 10 years' time.

"The elderly are the most rapidly growing segment of our population," Kuchel says. "They have specific needs, that differ from those of a younger population. Moreover, the oldest old, those above 85, differ from those aged 65 to 75."

The elderly, and the oldest old in particular, face a variety of health conditions that can lead to a loss of independence and autonomy, accompanied by increased care needs. These conditions include dementia (Alzheimer's disease), resulting in decreased cognitive function; deficits in balance and mobility, which can result in falls and fractures; and loss of continence, with its significant impact on quality of life.

"It is a wonderful time to be in this field," Kuchel says. "Although we care for the elderly, geriatric medicine is a young field - little more than 20 years old. We've just barely begun to define the questions," he says, "yet, as we start to tackle well defined questions using exciting new research methodologies, the answers will follow."