Sam Slezak originally set out to become a trainer for professional athletes. Today, he’s a Research Coordinator at the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital. While working with aging seniors doesn’t come with the bright spotlight of training athletic superstars, the impact of his work is undoubtedly much more worthy of one, with the potential to help lengthen and improve the lives of millions of people.
Slezak began studying Kinesiology (the science of body movement) at the University of Rhode Island with the goal of becoming a trainer for a professional sports team. But graduate work on a research study focused on resistance training interventions for older, sedentary people steered his interest in physical movement onto a different path.
Slezak joined the Memory and Aging Program in November, 2017, just six months after earning his Master of Science in Kinesiology from URI. Now, three years later, he’s one of just five project managers across the country helping to coordinate the POINTER trial, a major national study aimed at evaluating whether healthy lifestyle interventions can help to protect brain health.
“During grad school I found I really enjoyed doing research – especially the process of planning and production of the study – and so that’s why research was on my radar as a possible field after graduation. When I saw the study coordinator position at the Memory and Aging Program working with the older adult population as I had done during my graduate program, I thought it was the perfect fit,” Slezak says.
Over the last few years he’s helped to coordinate several major Alzheimer’s disease and dementia studies. He was the lead coordinator for the TRAILBLAZER trial and co-coordinator for the TAURIEL, TANGO and Periscope trials as well, organizing the participant recruitment and screening as well as the overall operation of those trials.
Slezak says his experience working with the program over the last few years has not been what most people would probably assume.
“People think this job must be all doom and gloom, that it’s sad and depressing, but in reality most of the time it’s really upbeat,” Slezak says. “The staff and the study participants are enthusiastic about what they’re doing, so working here is quite the opposite of sad. The feeling in the field overall today is upbeat, forward-thinking and positive. Even when studies come to a close and the results aren’t what you hoped for, still everyone looks forward to the future and working together in a positive way to use what’s been learned to come up with a treatment.”
Slezak has also watched as the field has shifted toward a greater focus on prevention.
A growing body of research points to healthy lifestyle habits like social and intellectual activity, nutrition and exercise as a key factor in staving off cognitive decline and perhaps even helping to prevent conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk (U.S. POINTER) trial is the first study to test just that in a large, diverse group of Americans.
The study is sponsored by the national Alzhiemer’s Association and will enroll approximately 2,000 volunteers across then nation. Those volunteers will be provided with one of two programs that encourage increased physical exercise, a healthier diet, cognitive and social stimulation, and management of heart and vascular health. Their progress will be followed for two years.
Locally, the POINTER New England study site is enrolling 400 volunteers and will be conducted through a collaboration between the Memory and Aging Program, the Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center at The Miriam Hospital, the Alzheimer’s Association Rhode Island Chapter and the Alzheimer’s Association Massachusetts/New Hampshire Chapter.
With his background in Kinesiology and his experience coordinating other major studies for the Memory and Aging Program, Slezak has the perfect skills set to be project manager for the study. It’s a challenge he says he’s looking forward to.
“When I heard about the POINTER trial my ears perked up, because it sort of falls right in my wheelhouse,” he says.
“Coming from my background, the concept that exercise and diet is medicine is no secret. But even though the general public knows it’s good for you, most people still don’t do it regularly. A huge portion of the population is sedentary, especially as they age”
“So I’m really curious to see if a landmark study like this can demonstrate that being physically active and maintaining a healthy diet can slow down memory loss, will that be the push people need to become active?” Slezak says.
“There are medications for the hypertension and high cholesterol that can come from leading a sedentary lifestyle. But there are no medications to slow down the onset of dementia that everyone can take and have great results with. So if the results of this study are positive and this catches on and leads a movement for people to become more active, it would be great.”
Managing the POINTER study will more or less be Slezak’s sole focus at the Memory and Aging Program over the next two years. He’ll be managing the recruitment of 400 people, as well as production of the study itself, including bringing those 400 participants back into the office every 6 months over the two-year course of the study.
Slezak says it’s a tall order, but one that he and the Memory and Aging team are up to.
“The 400-participant requirement for this study is really big – bigger than any study that I’ve worked on thus far. So that will be a huge milestone for the team and for the program as the last of the five POINTER site. I have no doubts that our team will rise to the occasion and meet or exceed expectations.”
To learn more about the Memory and Aging Program and how you can get involved, visit butler.org/memory.
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