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An Interview with Mark Jensen, PhD

Photo of Mark Jensen, MD

Mark Jensen, PhD is a Professor, and Co-Director of the Rehabilitation and Research Training Center on Aging with Disabilities.

The University of Washington Rehabilitation and Research Training Center on Aging With Disabilities addresses the specific challenges that affect people who are aging with physical disabilities related to spinal cord injury (SCI), multiple sclerosis (MS), Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS), and muscular dystrophy (MD). The Center was established in 2008 and is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

Why is it important to focus on rehabilitation strategies for individuals aging with physical disabilities?

People with physical disabilities are living longer than ever before due to recent advancements in medical care and rehabilitation. With that in mind, we’re seeing a whole new set of symptoms and challenges that affect this specific population’s participation in valued activities, such as community involvement, recreation, and employment.

The Center’s ultimate goal is to produce rehabilitation strategies that stabilize or buffer the effects of these symptoms associated with aging with a disability, and in this way help to promote social and economic independence for individuals aging with a disability.

What are some of the symptoms and challenges that this population faces?

The most commonly studied secondary conditions in a person aging with a disability are depression, fatigue, sleep problems, and pain. But there are many health conditions that we also plan to look at, such as bone loss, heart disease, and other illnesses. These conditions have a significant effect on a person’s overall quality of life.

Why did the team choose to target persons with SCI, MS, PPS, and MD?

Part of the reason we chose to target individuals with SCI and MS was that we already have two NIDRR-funded centers studying individuals with these conditions in our department; the MS RRTC that DR. George Kraft is the PI of, and the SCI Model System that Dr. Chuck Bombardier is the PI of. This gives us ready access to samples of individuals with SCI and MS that we can study in our research, and also allows us to work synergistically with expert researchers and clinicians to study aging in these populations.

At the same time, there is already more research on aging in individuals with both SCI and MS than nearly any other type of disability. Other disability groups have been under-studied, so we also wanted to include other disabilities to broaden our understanding of the issues associated with aging with a disability. We chose PPS and MD, specifically, because we have some experience in working with individuals with these disabilities in our previous work on pain and disability. Moreover, we have access to individuals with these disabilities who could participate in our research studies, because we have clinics in our department where these patients are seen.

What are some of the Center’s current research initiatives?

We have a number of research projects underway, including a cohort survey to help better understand the natural course of aging with a physical disability and a project on outcomes measurements. Drs. Chuck Bombardier and Dawn Ehde are developing and plan to test an activity intervention to determine its efficacy for treating depression in individuals with SCI, MS, PPS, and MD as they age. And Dr. Mark Harness is looking into the use of technology to help individuals as they age monitor and track important life-style variables that could influence secondary conditions.

Dr. Kurt Johnson, an expert in the area of vocational issues in individuals with disabilities is also heading up a project to examine the factors that influence how persons with disabilities are able to maintain employment as they age.

Finally, Dr. Kathy Yorkston is heading up a project to organize focus groups to help us understand the most important issues associated with aging with a disability from the consumers’ perspective. Dr. Yorkston is also the director of the project’s dissemination and training activities, which involve getting information out about the most important findings from our research to consumers and health care provides as soon as possible. As a group, all of the projects and these studies work closely together so that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Do you have any studies seeking volunteers?

For more information on our research studies, or to learn more about the Rehabilitation and Research Training Center on Aging With Disabilities in general, please visit them on the web:

The Executive Committee:

  • Mark Jensen, PhD - Director
  • Ivan Molton, PhD – Co-Director
  • Dagmar Amtmann, PhD
  • George Kraft, MD, MS
  • Kurt Johnson, PhD
  • Kathryn Yorkston, PhD
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