Guests at Penn Medicine’s event in Naples, Florida, play pickleball

One of the most striking changes seen in most of our lifetimes has been in global life expectancy—and at Penn Medicine, clinicians are also seeing patients who have faced devastating illness in their later years not only survive, but then thrive during their renewed time with family, friends, and the world around them. 

“I think one of the most important paradigm shifts is just how we think of people as they age,” said Tiffany Peng Hwa, MD, an assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Adult-Onset Hearing Loss. “I think it's an increasingly bad bet, actually, to make assumptions about their level of activity, employment, or engagement with the world.” 

“Some of my patients are out there doing philanthropic efforts, they're volunteering, they're very involved in their families. They're still involved in the companies they work for. For clinicians at Penn Medicine, we're already thinking about maximizing our patients’ ‘healthspan,’ as well as their years, to enjoy the most out of active aging.” 

In a similar vein, philanthropic support of leading-edge medicine and clinical trials also helps answer questions about countering or even preventing age-related illnesses and disability. Christoph A. Thaiss, PhD, an assistant professor of Microbiology and basic scientist who is fascinated by the human microbiome, credits donor gifts for building flexibility and speed into his work. “If it was not for philanthropic funding, many of our research projects would be much slower and much more restricted in their scope,” he explained, “and what's even more important is that philanthropic funding is usually the catalyzer for large-scale projects that come down the road.” 

One great example has been the Dean’s Innovation Fund: Fueled by more than $15 million in donor support, it helps some early-stage investigators pursue bold ideas that otherwise may not have attracted traditional funding. Hwa is grateful for the long-time support of Joseph Gates and the Ware Foundation to the Center for Adult-Onset Hearing Loss, saying, “Our team has been really fortunate to have received the Foundation’s support on multiple occasions—and having that commitment renewed.” 

Interim Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, Jonathan A. Epstein, MD, is excited about this new area of translation and discovery. “The potential in the ‘active aging’ space is difficult to condense—and because aging happens at the cellular and molecular level, it affects every organ and tissue. That also means success will come naturally from Penn Medicine’s collaborative interactions between physicians, scientists, and their multi-disciplinary teams.” 

Developing scientific leaders 

Jonathan Epstein, MD, stands at a podium on stage where Ryan Offer, Douglas Jacoby, and Flavia Vitale are seated.
After Penn Medicine's exclusive dinner event at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, Interim Dean Jonathan Epstein, MD, moderated a panel with Ryan Offer, MD; Douglas Jacoby, MD; and Flavia Vitale, PhD.

 Interim Dean Epstein is also excited about how many of Penn Medicine’s junior faculty are seizing the opportunity to lead. “We’ve fostered and are enjoying the benefits of a significant culture change in which junior faculty now have the support and confidence to advance their own ideas, as opposed to making the discovery and depending on others to take it to the next level.” 

“Our strategic plan’s focus on faculty growth and development, and the strategic plan’s commitment to our evolving research infrastructure, means we can better define and capture data, design new clinical trials, and—by increasing representation in our community—seamlessly weave health equity throughout.” 

Douglas S. Jacoby, MD, who is now the Louis R. Dinon, MD Teaching Chair of Clinical Cardiology and chief of Cardiology at Pennsylvania Hospital, knew that from his very first days at Penn Medicine. “My specialty was not something that other places supported,” he recalled. “It was when I interviewed with Penn that the faculty said they’d work with me and foster my interest in cardiovascular disease prevention.” 

Another faculty member able to carve her own path is Flavia Vitale, PhD, an assistant professor of Neurology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Perelman School of Medicine and assistant professor of Bioengineering at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It’s at this intersection where she is exploring sleep disorders and how they factor into brain decline, as well as refining intracerebral gene and drug delivery tools. 

“It’s thrilling, as an engineer, to be able to have real-world patients in mind and that there is a direct translation from my lab to the clinic—there’s no artificial barrier at Penn Medicine,” she explains. “Too often, technologies are designed as ‘black boxes,’ and my dream is to make them fully accessible and useful for my physician colleagues. Then they can become powerful tools for saving lives and im- proving care and quality of life.” 

She credits the Penn Center for Innovation and Penn Health-Tech for accelerating the lab-to-bedside (whether in the home or hospital) impact. “And philanthropy continues to play a huge role in ‘bridging the gaps,’ in my case providing the resources for prototype development and fabrications to the most exacting standards required by medicine.” 

Active aging: enhancing lives through purposeful years 

UPHS CEO Kevin Mahoney with Marketa Wills, M'99, Chair of the Medical Alumni Advisory Council
UPHS CEO Kevin Mahoney with Marketa Wills, M'99, Chair of the Medical Alumni Advisory Council

Kevin B. Mahoney, the CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, describes the essence of “active aging”: “It’s not merely about extending lifespans; it’s about enriching the quality of those additional years. For example, patients who underwent groundbreaking CAR T cell therapy have not simply survived. They are thriving and are living embodiments of resilience and purpose. Many of their journeys exemplify the transformative power of active aging—a force that transcends medicine and touches the very core of human existence. 

“At Penn Medicine, this remarkable opportunity reverberates across every facet of our work. We stand committed to not only adding years to our patients’ lives but also ensuring that these years are vibrant, purposeful, and deeply fulfilling.” 

The proportion of older adults is rapidly increasing. By 2050, there will be twice as many individuals aged 60 and above as there are young children in most countries. It’s a demographic shift that challenges researchers, physicians, and systems to reimagine health care, tailoring it to the unique needs of this aging population. In the clinic, Hwa works hand-in-hand with an on-staff genetic counselor who “takes a whole picture”: dedicating the time to learn about the patient, their family, and their journey to receiving care. Vitale deeply values the contributions her device work can make in shortening and simplifying doctor visits—as well as transferring more of that care to the home, thanks to personalized rehabilitation and at-home monitoring. 

The Penn Medicine community’s work reinforces the reality that active aging isn’t a solitary endeavor: It’s a collective commitment to honor every individual’s journey, whether they’re running marathons or savoring quiet moments with loved ones. In partnership with Penn’s donor and volunteer community, they are forging a path toward purposeful years, where age becomes a canvas for resilience, wisdom, and boundless possibility. 

Penn Medicine in Naples: Friends and alumni connect with the mission 

Local members of the Council of Discovery Science in Naples, Florida
Local members of the Council of Discovery Science had an opportunity to “convene” for Penn Medicine’s dinner at The Ritz-Carlton: Brenda Moriarty, Marketa Wills, M’99, WG’06, Puja Aggarwal, MD, Jayaram Brindala, MD, M’06, Jim Moriarty, Jack Hoopes, Rob Corrato, MD, WG’00, Donna Corrato, Jonathan A. Epstein, MD, Jonathan Doft, and Joe Zebrowitz, MD, C’88.

Penn Medicine’s events in Florida provide the opportunity to introduce friends and alumni to a tremendous group of colleagues: just a small sample of the faculty, students, and health care professionals who share a deep commitment to and abiding love for Penn Medicine. Among those who helped make Penn Medicine’s 2024 visit successful were Amy and Joe Frick; Joan and Dan Hilferty; Graceanne and Jack Hoopes; Donna and Robert Corrato; Annette and Don Parker; and members of the Penn Medicine Board, Medical Alumni Advisory Council, and Council for Discovery Science. 

At this year’s exclusive dinner, Health System CEO Kevin Mahoney welcomed guests and introduced the panel discussion moderated by Interim Dean Jonathan A. Epstein, MD, featuring Flavia Vitale, PhD, an assistant professor of Neurology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and assistant professor of Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Douglas Jacoby, MD, the Louis R. Dinon, MD Teaching Chair of Clinical Cardiology and medical director of the Penn Medicine Center for Preventive Cardiology and Lipid Management; and Ryan Offer, MD, an associate professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology and medical director of Penn Health for Women at Penn Medicine Radnor. 

The many informative discussions—over private gatherings, on the pickleball court, or in a panel—help demonstrate how the gifts donors have been making create maximum impact. Not only do they speak to Penn Medicine’s compelling mission of science, medical education, and health care, but they also make its faculty, health care teams, and students feel energized, supported, and valued. 

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