Mastering the Art of Growing Older with Rowan Medicine: New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging


Donald Fletcher, 103, speaks to Dr. Kevin Overbeck’s medical students

“Age is just a number” is true for the most part. Genetics accounts for 20 percent of how someone ages, says Kevin Overbeck, DO, director of the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging (NJISA) at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine (RowanSOM). That leaves room to take control of your physical and mental health, as well as your overall outlook on life. When you do that, you have the power to make your senior years the best they could be.

“People are working into and beyond their 80s,” says Dr. Overbeck, Chair of Rowan’s Department of Geriatrics & Gerontology in Stratford. “Although we generally define an older individual as being 65 and up, that’s one’s chronological age. Depending on how you take care of yourself, you can grow older successfully. All of us can slow the aging process and age well.”

Since 1989, Rowan’s NJISA has provided medical care to older adults throughout South Jersey and trained health professionals so they too can better serve older individuals.

“If you look at the medical and surgical histories of people over the age of 100, it’s not blank. They’ve been through a lot and the ability to have a condition, endure and recover is resilience.” -Kevin Overbeck, DO

-Kevin Overbeck, DO

The Institute’s primary care practice focuses on disease prevention, including age-appropriate screenings for common geriatric syndromes, and management of chronic conditions that older individuals often experience. NJISA geriatricians and nurse practitioners also provide primary care in sub-acute rehabilitation and assisted living facilities throughout the area. The Institute offers specialty care for individuals with cognitive impairment through its Memory Assessment Program – a diagnostic program for those experiencing problems with memory, language, planning, difficulty carrying out basic daily activities and decreased motivation.

Exercise is one of the most powerful tools for staying younger longer, Dr. Overbeck says. You can start to exercise at any age and achieve significant benefits. Even something as simple as walking and monitoring steps can put you on the right track. (He adds, 10,000 steps per day is unnecessary – 5,000 to 7,500 steps will do.)

“Do physical activities that you can age with, such as tennis, golf, swimming and walking,” he says, noting those are the top 4 activities he has seen his successful aging patients doing to age 85 and beyond.

Donald Fletcher, 103, is one of them. “Don Fletcher started swimming when he was 90,” says Dr. Overbeck. “Patients like him show how important it is to grow and be willing to do new things. And it’s vital that medical students have the opportunity to meet 100-year-olds who are at their best.”

Fletcher, a popular guest lecturer at the RowanSOM, provides medical students firsthand proof that older people can continue to live a vibrant life. “At age 95, after caring for his wife until she passed from Alzheimer’s disease, Don decided to visit Machu Picchu,” Dr. Overbeck says. “He wanted to go before he got too old and missed the opportunity.”

For many older adults, keeping up with technology means staying connected with friends and relatives and keeping the mind sharp. But here’s the key: start the practice while you’re still healthy. You’ll have the knowledge at your fingertips when you need it later and an established mindset that is open to learning and doing new things.

Keeping close relationships with people of all ages is another way to stay vibrant, he says, noting there’s good reason to spend as much time as possible with grandchildren, great grandchildren and other extended family.

Successful aging includes 3 elements that should be incorporated into your daily life – maintain physical function, preserve cognition, and do things that have value to your community.

“Physical function is the ability to do activities required for daily living. Cognitive function relates to memory and having the brain processing power to make decisions, exercise judgment, and follow multiple-step directions – the things required to pay bills or take your medications correctly,” he explains. “The third element, community engagement is doing something that has societal value, which can be as simple as being of service to a neighbor by watering their plants or feeding their pet while they’re away, or volunteering.”

In Rowan’s Memory Assessment Program, a team comprised of a geriatrician/ geriatric psychiatrist, neuropsychologist and licensed clinical social worker collaborate to assess patients and identify the possible causes of memory loss or other problems associated with their daily functioning. The team reviews the patient’s medical conditions, mood, functional ability, memory and social supports, and recommends a person-centered care plan to guide the patient and their caregivers.

The Department of Geriatrics and Gerontology offers more than clinical care. The Biomarker Discovery Center, established in 2012 and led by Robert Nagele, PhD, studies blood-borne biomarkers to diagnose early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Early, accurate and cost-effective diagnosis is critical to improve the treatment of these diseases. One of their goals is to develop a blood test to detect the presence of Alzheimer’s disease in the pre-clinical stage – before symptoms become apparent to a patient or their family and friends.

Clinical research using a digital, iPad-based test for cognitive screening rather than paper and pencil, is also underway at NJISA, and will contribute to the early identification of cognitive difficulties. “If we can identify those who are not yet exhibiting symptoms of dementia through a blood test or by using digital cognitive assessment, we will be able to direct patients to clinical drug trials and implement early interventions to improve cognition,” Dr. Overbeck says.

NJISA Research Director Rachel Pruchno, PhD, leads a team focused on the behavioral and psychological processes associated with aging. They study how characteristics in people between the ages of 50 and 74 and the elements of their environment may promote successful aging. A large part of their work is related to the study of resilience and other commonalities shared by adults who age well.

“In addition to physical function, preserving cognition, and community engagement – there is resilience,” he adds. “If you look at the medical and surgical histories of people over the age of 100, they are not blank. Older individuals have been through a lot. The ability to have a condition, endure and recover defines resilience.”

He credits peer pressure for encouraging aging adults to become more resilient.

“When we see older people doing so well, it encourages everyone,” says Dr. Overbeck. “We can learn a lot from older individuals. Working with them for the last 15 years as a geriatrician has been an education. I see what works and what doesn’t and what matters.”

Dr. Overbeck stresses that “there will never be enough geriatricians,” which is why RowanSOM trains all its medical students in geriatrics. The ultimate goal, he adds, is to have every doctor get this important training.

“If we’re lucky, we will all grow older, and the tools to do so successfully are ours to use and master,” he adds. “We want to create an age-friendly health system that recognizes, values and supports older adults and uses proven strategies to give them great health care. The mission of the programs and medical professionals at Rowan’s NJISA is to focus on what matters to our older patients, maximize their function, and help them live their best lives.”

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