Eight people stand in two rows on a staircase.

Where climate meets health

UAB professor brings expertise in aging, natural disasters to national scholar program

by Sydney Cromwell

The first four months of 2023 were a busy start for Zhen Cong.

In January, she arrived at the University of Alabama – Birmingham to take a position as professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the school’s Climate and Health Initiative. In February, she was named as part of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) inaugural class of Climate and Health Scholars

In March, Cong and her department at UAB participated in the 2023 United Nations Water Conference. And in April, she met her fellow Climate and Health Scholars for the first time and began her work with the NIH.

Cong’s field, gerontology (the study of aging), doesn’t have the most obvious connection to climate change. But climate change’s effects on society are multi-faceted, Cong said, and addressing them should be, too.

That’s the approach she takes both at UAB and as part of this new program at the NIH.

Cong has been studying older adults’ family and community relationships since she was a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. After she became a professor at Texas Tech University, Cong said she started getting interested in tornadoes and other natural disasters.

“I found a lot of gaps on older adults’ vulnerabilities to natural disasters,” Cong said.

Those vulnerabilities can include limited mobility or finances, making evacuation more difficult; medical conditions that can worsen when routine doctor visits are disrupted after a disaster; and sensitivity to extreme heat and cold.

Cong said elderly adults also may have vulnerabilities due to economic status, education, gender, race or other factors that only worsen as they age.

“Everyone is aging,” she said.

The partial remains of a house, with many holes and exposed beams, stand amid a pile of wood, sheetrock, fallen trees, wires and other debris. In the background another house is visible that is somewhat more intact but is still missing large parts of its roof, walls and windows.
Senior adults can be more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters, such as the 2012 tornado that caused damage to this home in Center Point. Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service.

Those same factors also mean that seniors are a particularly vulnerable population to the effects of climate change, including intense storms, heat waves, floods, droughts and other natural disasters.

UAB’s Climate and Health Initiative brings together faculty in environmental sciences, health, computer science, engineering and other fields. Climate change impacts not only health but infrastructure, transportation, water and air quality and social support systems, so the response must be equally comprehensive, Cong said.

“We are highly interdisciplinary, but we have a shared passion to address the issues brought by climate change and public health,” she said. “… We cannot take a single perspective to address these complex issues.”

Cong said there is “a lot we don’t know and we need to know” about climate change’s effects on senior adults.

“It’s really an important effort from NIH to build capacity in this area, to face these challenges for the whole society,” Cong said. “… This scholar program is really what I want to do because I want to join the efforts to address these critical challenges.”

Gwen Collman, who oversees the NIH Climate and Health Scholars program, said Cong brings valuable experience to the program, with her research background in natural disasters and interdisciplinary work.

“It’s been really a pleasure to have her work with us,” Collman said. “… She’s got a lot of energy, she’s super articulate, she brings a lot of experience in these different, disparate fields.”

Collman said she has already attended some “very fascinating” lectures that Cong has given. As an environmental epidemiologist, Collman said much of Cong’s research and expertise is quite new to her.

“She’s educating us,” Collman said.

“My career goal is to contribute to building aging and climate resiliency.”

Zhen Cong

Cong is one of eight scholars chosen for the 2023 NIH Climate and Health program, who will be working with about 150 NIH staff, Collman said. The other scholars’ research fields include cancer, infectious disease spread, social work, disaster response and health disparities across race and economic status.

“This field of climate and health is so broad that it would be impossible for any one of us at NIH to learn about all of it ourselves,” Collman said.

Each scholar is hosted by one of the institutes within the NIH. For Cong, this is the National Institute on Aging (NIA). The scholars met in April to talk about their priorities and plans to meet them.

Collman said the NIH’s goal for this scholars program is to take a “lifespan approach,” to better understand how climate change impacts every stage from pregnancy and childhood to senior adults.

“It’s been an evolution of each of the institutes understanding what climate change means for the populations and the disease outcomes that they’re working with,” Collman said.

Cong’s work will include analyzing existing research related to older adults and climate change or natural disasters, and she will also meet with professional and scientific societies to understand their priorities, she said. 

Collman said NIA staff are interested in more research in areas such as air pollution’s effect on older adults’ cognitive decline, or how changes in weather and climate impact aging, disease progression and even mental health. In 2022, the NIA awarded six grants for projects related to extreme weather and aging.

“It’s an evolving question, and there’s lots of questions out there that could be addressed from many different perspectives,” Collman said.

Cong will develop a paper based on her findings, but she’ll also get the chance to learn from colleagues at the NIA and across the NIH. What she learns at the NIH will also help UAB’s Climate and Health Initiative choose its approach to research and community outreach, she said.

“I think that my career goal is to contribute to building aging and climate resiliency,” Cong said. “… Population aging is a challenge to our society, climate change is a challenge to our society.”

The inaugural class of Climate and Health Scholars will complete their work in October.

Main article image of the 2023 Climate and Health Scholars courtesy of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Zhen Cong is located in the back row, far right.

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