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Incoming Director of USF's Institute on Aging

University of South Florida

When James Mortimer arrives at the University of South Florida next month, he will trade his skis for a set of golf clubs and his snow boots for a couple of pairs of Bermuda shorts.

Mortimer, the incoming director of USF's Institute on Aging, isn't complaining. After enduring dozens of Minnesota winters, he is more than happy to call the Sunshine State his new home. And he will land in Tampa with a full plate of ideas for the institute.

He wants to launch a long-term study on aging in the Tampa Bay area and help to raise the profile of the institute by making it a major player in the health care debate.

A firm believer in public service, Mortimer also thinks the institute needs to share more of its knowledge with the community and show people how they can improve the quality of their lives as they get older.

DEMYSTIFYING AGING: Mortimer, 51, a professor at the University of Minnesota, brings more than 16 years of experience in studying diseases associated with aging, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and what makes some people age better than others.

What he has learned is that people must change their ideas about getting old. Simply put, aging begins at conception, not at age 70. Whether we maintain our mental abilities in old age may be determined by what we do when we are young.

"I think the general feeling about aging is that it is something that happens to us when we are 65 or 70 and until that we are fine," he said. "We are now seeing that our ability to function in old age is determined before age 20."

For the past four years, Mortimer has been involved in a national study on aging involving 700 Catholic nuns between the ages of 75 and 102. Researchers have found a connection between their mental abilities at a young age and later in life.

"We have found that the nuns who have some problems with linguistic functions and who don't perform at the highest level are at greater risk for both a disease and poor functioning in old age," he said.

Those findings illustrate the importance of good nutrition and quality education for children, he said.

"Development of the brain is probably an important predictor of both intellectual performance in old age and loss of function in old age," he said. "It may be as important as the genetics of a disease itself."

FLORIDA AN IDEAL LOCATION: Mortimer has high hopes for a similar study in Tampa Bay. He said it will examine the genetic and environmental "predictors" of successful aging and the common diseases of aging.

"A lot of these diseases go on behind the scenes before they are discovered," he said. "If we can understand who is going to develop the disease 10 to 15 years down the line, then we have a chance of preventing the disease."

As far as Mortimer is concerned, there's no better place to conduct such a study than Florida because of the large population of elderly. "Florida is a remarkable place to study aging before it hits the rest of the country," he said. "Twenty years from now, the rest of the country will look like Florida in terms of their elderly population."

Mortimer is taking over the institute at a particularly critical time. As Congress makes historic changes to the health care industry, he sees an opportunity for the institute to influence policymakers.

"I think a university can either sit and watch it happen or try to have some real influence on it, and I think the Institute on Aging really needs to be a major player in the game," Mortimer said. "I think it's our job to make sure this whole movement to managed care is done in a way that will preserve the quality of life for older people."

Touching base more with the elderly will be another mission for the institute.

"Old people really have a lot of contributions to make," Mortimer said. "I don't believe in just viewing the elderly as an object of study. It's a real two-way street here."

ENGINEERING BACKGROUND: Mortimer grew up in Boston and got his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Tufts University. It has served him well.

"Engineers are very goals-oriented," he said. "They don't just like to do something that looks good on paper. They like to do things that have impact. It is a philosophy that I have carried with me, and for something like the aging institute, I think it's very helpful."

From Boston, Mortimer went to the University of Michigan, where he got his masters and doctorate degrees in communications sciences. From there, it was off to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where Mortimer worked for three years.

For the past 21 years, Mortimer has been at the University of Minnesota and is an associate professor of neurology and epidemiology. His main focus of study has been the causes of Alzheimer's.

"I looked at the disease, and the one thing we didn't know was what caused it," he said. "I guess I have always been interested in detective work and decided to make it my life's work."

Ironically, Mortimer's father had Alzheimer's and died at 77. It was an instructive yet painful experience for Mortimer.

"I certainly understand the disease much better than if I just studied it from the outside," he said.