It’s been a busy and productive first year for Jaqueline Contrera Avila, PhD, an assistant professor of gerontology who joined UMass Boston in August 2022. In addition to preparing for and teaching two classes, she has expanded her research on tobacco use among older adults, a focus of her interest in the social determinants of older adults’ health.

Avila is conducting two coinciding research projects. One continuing project involves analyzing secondary data from large datasets—the Health and Retirement Study in the United States and sister datasets from Mexico, England, India, and South Africa—to study how  tobacco use varies among older adults in different countries and how tobacco use affects cognitive function. “Smoking cigarettes is a huge risk factor for dementia,” she says. Tobacco use varies across countries by age, gender, education levels, and socioeconomic status, Avila says. In Mexico, for example, where cigarettes are expensive, smokers are often the people with the highest level of education and income, contrasted with the United States, where it’s the opposite.

For her second project, Avila has received a seed grant award from the UMass Boston–Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center Partnership, a National Cancer Institute effort to increase cancer health equity and diversity in cancer research. The program pairs large cancer research centers with institutions serving underserved health disparity populations and underrepresented students, including UMass Boston.

Avila is working with Nancy Rigotti, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, associate chief of the general internal medicine division at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an internationally known expert in tobacco use, tobacco cessation, and tobacco control public policy. The two researchers are studying adults aged 50 and older who are heavy smokers and are eligible to receive lung cancer screening. The researchers are looking at the association between individuals and neighborhood-level socioeconomic status, and the likelihood they will quit smoking after an evidence-based smoking cessation intervention. Individuals with lower education and who live in areas with greater disadvantage are less likely to quit smoking, even after receiving cessation treatment, Avila says.

Avila and Rigotti are applying for a larger grant to continue exploring strategies for older smokers at high risk for lung cancer who haven’t been able to quit smoking. They want to test whether switching to electronic cigarettes, or vaping, could help long-time cigarette smokers reduce their risk of lung cancer.

“It sounds controversial,” Avila says, “but there’s growing evidence showing it’s better for adults who smoke and are not willing to quit to switch to vaping, because vaping just delivers nicotine [the main addictive substance in cigarettes], it doesn’t have any tobacco and it is not a combustible product.” The researchers want to see if e-cigarettes could be a harm reduction tool for older adults who are not willing to quit smoking, she notes.

Avila’s interest in studying tobacco use began in her postdoctoral work at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies in Brown University’s School of Public Health. The center’s focus was substance abuse, she says, so she chose to research tobacco addiction in older adults as a topic that hasn’t been examined by many. She has since connected with a handful of researchers at various universities, most of them early in their academic careers as she is, who have created an informal research group to examine smoking cessation among older adults.

Read: Gerontology welcomes Jaqueline Contrera Avila to faculty