Baylor College of Medicine News

Huffington Center on Aging celebrates 25th anniversary

According to Dr. William T. Butler, chancellor emeritus of Baylor College of Medicine, it takes many people and a combination of ideas, vision and philanthropy to form something important for the future, and that’s exactly what happened 25 years ago to establish the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine.

The people

In this May 1988 photo, Roy Huffington, Dr. William T. Butler, Phyllis Huffington and Dr. Robert J. Luchi are pictured during a luncheon to honor the donation to establish the Huffington Center on Aging. Photo courtesy Baylor College of Medicine Archives.

“In the mid-70s, we had a number of people who I call visionaries who saw the importance in the future of dealing with our aging population, and we needed some kind of focus in the College to bring this to people’s attention,” said Butler, who was president of BCM when the Center was established.

One of those people was Dr. Carlos Vallbona, now professor of family and community medicine at BCM, who Butler assigned to create a Task Force on Aging. The task force recommended the creation of an academic unit at the college called the Center on Aging.

At the same time, Dr. Robert Luchi, who was the chief of medicine at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, took a sabbatical to study in Great Britain, where the study of geriatrics was well established. Luchi realized that aging was a growing concern in the country and that the College had no defined clinical, education or research projects related to geriatrics.

“I became impressed by the knowledge they had, the research they were doing and realized this is something BCM ought to have,” said Luchi.

He agreed to head this new center and created a geriatric unit at the DeBakey VA.

One of the early faculty members was allied health director Dr. Robert Roush, now associate professor of medicine in the section of geriatrics at BCM, who saw the need for a formal program to address the special needs and demographics of this population, which he referred to as an “aging tsunami.”

The philanthropy

A portrait of Phyllis and Roy Huffington, date unknown. Photo courtesy Baylor College of Medicine Archives.

The final visionary in the creation of the center was former U.S. Ambassador and philanthropist Roy Huffington, who had recently joined BCM’s Board of Trustees. The Huffington family, specifically Mr. Huffington’s wife, Phyllis Gough Huffington, had an interest in the aging population. They gifted $1 million for the establishment of the aging center, with many millions to come in the future, and the center was officially named the Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine.

“The Huffington Center is still flourishing in large part because of the endowment that the Huffington family gave,” said Luchi.

The final visionary in the creation of the center was former U.S. Ambassador and philanthropist Roy Huffington, who had recently joined BCM’s Board of Trustees. The Huffington family, specifically Mr. Huffington’s wife, Phyllis Gough Huffington, had an interest in the aging population. They gifted $1 million for the establishment of the aging center, with many millions to come in the future, and the center was officially named the Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine.

“The Huffington Center is still flourishing in large part because of the endowment that the Huffington family gave,” said Luchi.

The vision

Over the past 25 years, the vision for the Center has remained the same: to improve the health of elderly people through research, education and clinical care.

“Up until that time, the aging person was sort of divided into pieces,” said Butler. “If you head a heart problem, you went to a heart doctor; if you had a liver problem, you went to a liver doctor, but no one was looking comprehensively at the person as a whole. That was the whole key to the establishment of the Center on Aging, that we could bring together in one discipline all the participating partners in the care of people who are getting older and they could go to one place and get the care that they needed.”

Luchi and his team worked with The Methodist Hospital, now Houston Methodist, to develop inpatient and outpatient services for geriatric patients, began recruiting researchers to do basic science work and developing more educational programs in the field of geriatrics.

“What we did in the care of patients was to break new ground. It wasn’t generally known how older people react to antibiotics, how susceptible they were to urinary tract infections simply on entering the hospital, whether one could resuscitate an older person and expect a good result. It was that kind of clinical research that we did,” said Luchi.

On the education side, Luchi and colleagues at the Center worked to get geriatrics into the curriculum of the medical students and make geriatrics rotations available to the residents in the department of medicine. They worked to create a fellowship program to train future geriatricians and populate BCM’s affiliated hospitals with physicians who had geriatric experience.

“The biggest accomplishment was in recruiting and attracting top-notch people at the clinical level, at the educational level and at the research level. It’s one of the most important things that we’ve done,” said Luchi, who retired in 1998.

Over the past 25 years, the vision has remained the same, to improve the health of elderly people through research, education and clinical care, according to Dr. Hui Zheng, current director of the Center, who has been associated with the Center for over 14 years.

“The Huffington Center was literally at the forefront in many ways and the accomplishments of the center have been substantial,” said Butler.

He notes that studies on simple things such as compliance with medications in the aging population make a huge difference.

“A lot of the early development was in helping people cope with being older – the type of cane they get, how to bend over, how to lift things properly, how not to fall – all those things that are sort of taken for granted, there are preventive measures you can take to eliminate these problems,” he said. 

The future

Dr. Hui Zheng

“We’re optimistic about the future,” said Roush. “Aging isn’t just for today’s older adults, but for everyone.”

With this in mind, faculty at the Center hopes to continue to grow their work on clinical, research and education fronts.

Zheng hopes to continue to recruit outstanding faculty, including research scientists who can translate work from the bench to the bedside. She notes that each faculty member is successful in their own research, but the goal is to continue to synergize and collaborate on research efforts in the future.

“My fondest hope is that we will have a major breakthrough in the early diagnosis in the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” said Luchi. “That’s one of the most important things on the horizon in the health of the world – how we can intervene or treat effectively dementias, particularly Alzheimer’s dementia.”

According to Butler, in the future, geriatric physicians and researchers have to deal with the increasing stress of getting older and the increasing difficulty in accessing care for some older people as well as reimbursement for care.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about healthcare right now, and the people who are more likely to fall into the cracks are those who don’t have the voice to speak out. It’s important for the geriatric community to focus on this as a major problem we have to face as a country,” said Butler.