UF Health opens innovative precision health research center dedicated to senior health in The Villages®

Carla VandeWeerd, Ph.D., will lead the UF Health Precision Health Research Center – The Villages®University of Florida Health has raised the bar for improving the lives of seniors in America’s Healthiest Hometown® by opening a new research center that aims to predict, prevent and cure health problems that impact wellness in a customized and personal way — at the individual and community level.

The UF Health Precision Health Research Center – The Villages® will conduct research projects that combine individual genomics, lifestyle and community/environmental risk factors to tailor strategies for healthy living by bridging the gap between science and the community.

Genes, behaviors — such as exercise and eating habits — and environmental factors all impact a person’s health, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal of precision health is measure these factors in an individual and act on them.

In collaboration with scientists from a diverse range of disciplines, researchers at the 3,700-square-foot facility on the campus of UF Health The Villages® Hospital will conduct a mix of community-based research — such as population health studies, observational studies, community interventions, program and technology evaluations — and clinical research, including clinical trials and health education interventions.

UF Health Precision Health Research Center – The Villages® is guided by a community advisory board composed of local residents and is founded on a community-based participatory research, or CBPR, approach that ensures the community has a strong voice in the work it carries out.

“From the program’s onset, it was critical that we adopt a CBPR approach for our work, and the first step in that approach is listening,” said Carla VandeWeerd, Ph.D., director of the UF Health Precision Health Research Center – The Villages®. VandeWeerd is an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics.

“The center’s first project is to conduct a series of focus groups with area residents age 65 and over to assess and explore their unique health concerns and challenges,” she said. “This important data will form the basis for the types of research projects we pursue. Moreover, our community advisory board will review and approve all projects prior to their launch, ensuring that we are not operating in a vacuum, disconnected from our community.”

To date, more than 5,000 members of the community have joined a registry established to provide updates about the programs and to alert registrants about upcoming research studies. That number is expected to grow over the coming months.

“UF Health is honored to be positioned at the forefront of medical breakthroughs made possible only by our continuous development and support of robust, university-based research programs,” said Colleen G. Koch, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., dean of the UF College of Medicine. “Being able to offer precision health research in The Villages®, America’s Healthiest Hometown®, represents an unprecedented opportunity for us to truly reshape medicine, including preventive care, so that our friends and neighbors can live longer, healthier lives.”

For VandeWeerd, this research is not only her life’s work, it’s personal.

“Early in my career, I was involved with a research study focused on senior adults,” she said. “During that time, I observed that many of the negative health outcomes could have been avoided by placing more of a focus on the person’s overall health and well-being. Many of these individuals dedicated their lives to giving to others. I want to make sure the work we do in this center will help our seniors enjoy healthy and vibrant golden years.”

About UF Health

UF Health is a world-class academic health center that combines leading-edge research at campuses around Florida with outstanding clinical care at a network of hospitals around the state. The flagship is UF Health Shands Hospital, ranked the No. 1 hospital in Florida in the 2020-21 U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals survey, with nine adult and three pediatric specialties in the top 50 in the nation, more than any other hospital in Florida.

With main campuses in Gainesville and Jacksonville as well as satellite sites in Central Florida and several other locations, UF Health provides exemplary health care to patients across the third-most populous state in the nation. UF Health consists of six health colleges, nine research centers and institutes,10 hospitals — including two teaching hospitals and five specialty hospitals — and a host of physician medical practices and outpatient services.

The backbone of UF Health is a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 33,000 people who provide lifesaving care and research breakthroughs for more than 3 million patients who come to UF Health each year from around the U.S. and more than 30 countries.

UF Health is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. As part of the state’s “safety-net’’ hospital system, caring for people who have little or no medical coverage, UF Health provided more than $254.9 million in unsupported charity care and social responsibility across its Gainesville and Jacksonville campuses in fiscal year 2019. Annually, UF Health contributes more than $4.6 billion to Florida’s overall economy.

Our mission is to promote health through outstanding and high-quality patient care, innovative and rigorous education in the health professions and biomedical sciences, and high-impact research across the spectrum of basic, translational and clinical investigation. Visit www.UFHealth.org to learn more.

Media contact: W. Frank Faust at ffaust@centflhealth.org or 352-323-3278.