Home » Diversity and Inclusion » Diversity Profile: Meet Our Researchers » Featured Researcher: Heather Whitson, MD, MHS

Featured Researcher: Heather Whitson, MD, MHS

My first exposure to geriatrics research was an introductory lecture by Dr. Mark Lachs during my first year of medical school at Cornell.  At the end of his lecture, he encouraged any student who might be interested in a summer of geriatrics research to come and talk to him.  I think I broke the land speed record getting to the podium. With Dr. Lachs as my mentor, I received a John A. Hartford Foundation Scholarship to work with Dr. Susan Greenspan at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.  By the end of that experience I was committed to a career in clinical research in aging. When it was time to choose an internal medicine residency program, I was looking for a place with a strong reputation in geriatrics, preferably in the South (where I’d grown up).  When I discussed these specifications with my cadre of geriatrics mentors, the uniform answer was “Go see Harvey Cohen’s program at Duke!”

I arrived in Durham in 2000, and the Duke Aging Center has been my professional home ever since.  I am honored to have served as the Aging Center’s Director since 2019, a position previously held for 37 years by my collaborator and mentor Dr. Harvey Cohen.  My overall career goal is to understand and promote resilience across the lifespan and to optimize independence in medically complex individuals.  Within the broader fields of multimorbidity and resilience, I have found a niche related to the interface of age-related changes in eye and brain.

I am grateful for a network of collaborators that encompasses expertise in ophthalmology and optometry, cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, biostatistics, and Alzheimer’s disease.  I have led translational studies that probe the link between vision loss and the aging brain, incorporating brain MRI, retinal imaging, and neurocognitive data.  My team developed a new vision rehabilitation model (MORE-LVR) that improves vision function and quality of life for seniors with co-existing cognitive and visual impairments.  We have investigated retinal biomarkers and dual-task paradigms for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.  Along with my colleagues in the Duke Pepper Center, I contribute to the emerging concept of physical resilience, which we define as the capacity to retain or recover function following a health stressor (e.g., vision loss, surgery, or infection).  We have advanced new techniques to quantify resilience after health stressors, and we are validating biomarkers and feasible clinical tests that can be used to predict recovery patterns. I also co-lead the Duke/UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Collaboration, an initiative that has brought together researchers at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to understand how age-related changes across the lifespan contribute to the development, progression, and experience of Alzheimer’s disease.  Our mission is to advance research in this theme while transforming care and research options for people with or at risk of Alzheimer’s disease across Eastern North Carolina.