Studies show that green neighborhoods promote healthy behaviors, like walking, which could slow cognitive decline. With funding from a new grant, Lilah Besser, Ph.D, plans to further that research and examine the impact of green spaces on brain health in people of various ages, sexes and races.
Besser is chair of the department of urban and regional planning, assistant professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and a faculty fellow of FAU’s Institute for Human Health and Disease Intervention (I-Health). Her five-year, $585,250 career-development grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Aging, is based on her research titled “Longitudinal associations between neighborhood greenspace and brain aging in cognitively normal older adults.”
As someone who has moved around a lot, Besser said she has an interest in how environment and neighborhood influence brain health. Besser is also a member of FAU’s Brain Institute. Ultimately, she hopes her research leads to community-level interventions that can increase cognitive resilience and healthy behaviors, to promote healthy brain aging and allow older individuals to age in place.
“First, I am trying to understand [if] Alzheimer’s disease can be delayed or prevented by social and built environments, [if] there is an association,” said Besser, adding that her research is a large concept to correlate, and requires the knowledge of many different expertise. Besser collaborates with faculty across the university to “find novel interventions or treatments for those people to help delay diseases that are complex such as Alzheimer’s,” she said.
“It’s hard to be in a silo and do it by yourself, you really want to feel like you have [a community]. ... If I’m not collaborating with multiple disciplines, [my research] feels a bit hollow,” she said.
Before coming to FAU, Besser was a senior researcher at the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center, and a public health data analyst at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researching public health and birth defects. Her doctoral dissertation addressed the cross section of neighborhood planning, built environments and preventing neurodegenerative diseases.
Her work at the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center led to her interest in brain diseases, she said. However, her interest in neighborhoods and their effect on brain behavior, stem from childhood. She grew up in rural North Carolina and traveled across the east coast, in addition to urban areas like London and Seattle. Living in different places shaped her interest in city and regional planning, she said.
Besser said the goal for her research is to make lasting beneficial changes earlier in life to the health of those with brain disorders. “Public health researchers want to actually make a positive impact on health,” she said. ◆