Rural research shows disparities in the lifestyle of older adults

Olivia Atherton

College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Assistant Professor Olivia Atherton is curious about extending life. Chosen as a promising early-career researcher by the 2023 Butler-Williams Scholars Program (B-W Scholars), her persistent research on aging conditions shows promise of unearthing aging contrasts in rural communities. 

“From this program, I will get to learn from experts in aging,” Atherton said. “I am excited to discover more not only about health disparities, which is what my allocation revolves around, but also about the biology of aging and other disciplinary perspectives of aging that might help me to develop my research further.” 

The highly competitive B-W Scholars program is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) designed to facilitate a broader understanding of NIA-supported science and refine grant-writing skills. Atherton is passionate about joining the professional development program and engaging exceptional early-career researchers and scholars interested in aging research.  

“I am very interested in doing research that has an impact on individuals and communities, specifically with the research that I proposed for the program, because I grew up in a very rural area in Illinois,” Atherton said. “My high school graduating class was roughly 39 people, and this type of research is both personally and professionally interesting to me.” 

Atherton will explore aging trends among different rural populations and regions in the United States. Researching rural communities, she sought out answers to multiple conundrums, such why a disproportionate amount of older adults and sick people are found in rural neighborhoods and why ever-increasing numbers of rural-urban areas suffer from rural disparities in health and life expectancy. 

“I think it would be great to gain collaborators from different disciplines to begin the research projects that I am interested in and who could share expertise or a particular tool where I am lacking,” Atherton said. “Developing these collaborations to carry out the research in a more vigorous way or aid in submitting an even more competitive grant proposal after insights gained from the program would be an invaluable asset.” 

The intensive, two-day program is meant to foster connection, collaboration and research. Open to anyone in the country across all disciplines, it includes lectures, seminars, presentations and networking with other B-W Scholars and NIA officials.  

“I will also receive direct feedback on my grant proposal that will hopefully lead me to submit a strong application for future NIA funding,” Atherton said. “Networking opportunities will be presented with a variety of people that could future serve as co-investigators or experts.” 

Small-group discussion sessions will focus on methodological approaches and interventions. Topics will be centered on various research areas, such as the biology of aging, health disparities, genetics and Alzheimer’s disease. Participants are not just psychologists but biologists, stenographers etc. 

Atherton’s project highlights the interweaving connection of rural urban disparities and cognitive aging. She reflected on how living conditions and location can affect cognitive health, personalities and emotional wellbeing. 

“I hope this continues to foster connections within not only the program but also to bring attention to the program overall,” Atherton said. “This is a key moment and increases the likelihood of creating more interdisciplinary connections and collaborations. They are what will accelerate scientific progress; it’s not just the insular perspective of psychologists but the merging of brains to solve challenging issues.”