Dean Pinchas Cohen: COVID-19 Risk Factors and Research Directions for Older Adults

Dr. Pinchas Cohen, USC Leonard Davis School dean and a professor of gerontology, medicine and biological sciences, joins Chief Communications Officer Orli Belman in a conversation about COVID-19 risk factors and research directions, with a focus on how research focused on delaying aging processes holds promise for improving outcomes for older adults.

On the relationship between age and mortality rates:

“Older adults are so much more dramatically affected by this terrible pandemic. While of course middle-aged people and young people are affected by this and their rate of infection can be very high, the mortality of younger people is very, very small, but rises dramatically as people age.”

On vaccine response rates and older adults:

“We all know that vaccines are the number one goal for the biomedical industry right now, but some of you may or may not be familiar with the fact that vaccines are extremely efficient in young people, but among older adults, the response to vaccination is sometime very ineffective. For example, flu vaccine has a non-responsiveness rate that approaches 50% in older adults, which are of course the group that needs it the most.” 

On the need to develop cytokine storm blockers:

“When people look at what actually causes people to perish from COVID 19, it’s not so much the viral pneumonia that they suffer from, but rather something known as a cytokine storm that the body responds to the virus was this secretion of inflammatory cytokines like, something called interleukin six and TNF alpha and interferon, which the body then responds to with really shutting down of the lung and eventually death. So the development of blockers of this cytokine storm, are going to be critical. And that’s an area that geroscience has been leading for many years.”

On the importance of  gerontology and geroscience research:

“Post-COVID-19, I think that gerontology education will only become more important. Furthermore, research on the policy and social impact of the pandemic will be prioritized. Our leaders, our thinkers will continue to be at the forefront of that. Research into geroscience, particularly immunosenescence and inflammaging will be a major goal for the National Institutes of Health. Prevention of chronic disease, which has been really the biggest risk factor for older adults will return as a national priority.”

On how coronaviruses differ from influenza viruses:

“Coronaviruses are quite different from influenza viruses. They’re biologically unique, very separate. Also, influenza viruses affect primarily the airways, while coronaviruses can attack various parts of the body, but they’re deadly when they end up attacking the lungs, which influenza does not. Influenza predisposes the lungs to bacterial infections, which could be lethal. But they’re quite distinct. That’s why there are limited lessons that we can learn from influenza when it comes to COVID 19. But we do have enough previous knowledge to allow us to deal with this crisis and for future crises.”

On the roles of age, genetic and underlying conditions:

“Young people get infected just as easily as old people. The difference is that many young people have a completely asymptomatic course that they’re able to have the virus go through their system, develop antibodies, and never have any sign or symptom. The genetic determinants of who is going to get illness as opposed to who’s going to remain asymptomatic is something that we totally don’t understand. Obviously having poor health is important..but there’s also going to be genetic reasons why some people develop or don’t develop severe disease and then whether or not you’re going to survive, you know, be really sick and, and get better, whether you’re going to have a very, very bad outcome.”

On what matters most:

“At a time of great global uncertainty, what matters most is clear now than ever before. Health matters, older adults matter, science and especially geroscience matter. I think that this is going to be a challenging year ahead of us, but together we will prevail.”

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