Those seeking a healthy brain stand to benefit from Rebecca Ehrenkranz’s research.
For the past three years, the University of Pittsburgh graduate student and Squirrel Hill resident has investigated the neural correlates of well-being in older adults. By analyzing data and detecting patterns in brain activity, Ehrenkranz is hoping to learn more about cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease and healthy aging.
Given the disparity in research, the latter is particularly important, Ehrenkranz said.
“There has been a lot of focus on essentially neurodegenerative processes, but the thing is, most older adults don't experience that level of overt neurodegeneration. There's a real gap in the literature,” she said, “and a real gap in the research world, trying to study healthier older adults — people who are living independently in the community — and trying to understand what their needs are and how their brain aging looks.”
The goal, Ehrenkranz explained, is to “create interventions and promote well-being in older populations.”
This work comes at a critical time. Researchers from the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, said the number of Americans 65 and older will “more than double over the next 40 years, reaching 80 million in 2040.”
Relying on similar data from the U.S. Census Bureau, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research pointed to western Pennsylvania’s increasing number of older adults, noting that the percentage of adults 65 and older increased 16.8%, from 407,055 in 2010 to an estimated 475,336 in 2019.
Ehrenkranz is all in on studying brain activity, but before coming to Pitt she largely focused on other scientific interests. As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, a master’s student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a data analyst at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Ehrenkranz’s primary interest was cancer research.
Working on healthy aging has been a “wonderful thing,” she said, but analyzing data sets hasn’t been the only means of experiencing all that Pittsburgh has to offer.
She regularly volunteers with Repair the World at its East Liberty-based community garden, where she enjoys learning about the life cycles of different plants. Working in the garden has also been a “really great entry point in connecting with the Jewish community,” she said. “I think all the work that they do at Repair is very much rooted in Jewish values and the importance of Jewish community.”
Ehrenkranz has dug deeper than just tending local crops for the past three years. She’s taken advantage of programming through the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Young Adult Division, Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition — a joint venture of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
After what’s been a long haul of data-heavy research, Ehrenkranz hopes to finish her doctorate next year. But where she lands professionally remains unknown.
Even so, the Squirrel Hill resident remains enamored by her new surroundings and appreciative of the growth it engendered, saying, “I would love [for people] to know how enthusiastic I am about the work that I do, and how important I think it is, as well as how grateful I am for the opportunities that I've had while I'm in Pittsburgh and through Repair the World.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.