What helps keep our minds and bodies healthy as we age? Jason Flatt, a UNLV School of Public Health professor, first pondered that question as he worked in a nursing home as a high schooler. His career has since taken him from Florida to South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, and now Nevada to develop new perspectives on the health of aging populations, particularly those in the LGBTQ community.
Tell us how you got into public health.
I’m a Florida native and got my bachelor’s in health science with a focus on community health at the University of Florida. I was an intern at the American Cancer Society, and that experience with health education and cancer prevention initially led to my interest in public health. For my master’s, I went to the University of South Carolina and earned my MPH (master of public health) in health promotion, education, and behavior and conducted research focused on drug and alcohol prevention as well as smoking cessation.
How did you land your first job?
While I was doing my MPH, my thesis involved interviewing on college campuses across the nation about alcohol and drug prevention programming. This included a group at the University of Pittsburgh. After my interview, they told me they liked how thorough my research and questions were and encouraged me to apply for their job opening. I did and ended up starting that job before graduating with my master’s. For the next 10 years, I worked in Pittsburgh and lived in the famous Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, Squirrel Hill.
After two years in student health, I became interested in broader health promotion and took a job getting involved in worksite health promotion, focused on disease prevention and biometric screenings. I was working with the university’s health plan and eventually became a program manager, overseeing health education materials that health coaches delivered to members.
What were the biggest questions you initially wanted to answer in public health?
I started noticing a disjointed understanding when it comes to the best health outcomes we could be measuring in public health. I thought, “How are we ensuring that programs or content that we’re using are actually impacting people’s health?” I became really interested in ways to better measure health outcomes and research design, so I decided to pursue my PhD in behavioral and community health sciences, with a focus on aging.
Why focus on research related to aging?
My interest in aging stemmed back from my high school days, when I worked at an assisted living facility and planned the social activities on the weekends. It was one of the most rewarding jobs I had at that point in my career. Understanding what about people’s lives — especially the social aspect — impacts their health is important. We are seeing a growing population of older people in our country. We also have growing issues with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, so I wanted to figure out how we can keep people’s minds healthier as we get older.
How did the LGBTQ community fit into your work?
After my PhD, I accepted a job at the University of California, San Francisco and had an exciting opportunity to start fresh and build my academic career. While in San Francisco, I realized many older LGBTQ people were aging in place and we didn’t know a lot about their health and aging service needs. At this point, I had a lot of research training and skills and wanted to find out how I could make an impact and support the LGBTQ aging community. I received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant that provides me five years of funding to develop my career, gain additional training, and conduct research focused on the epidemiology of Alzheimer’s and dementia in sexual and gender minorities (SGM). SGM represents people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, gender non-binary, and intersex. The project focuses on social justice, health equity, and diversity, and I started building my research career with a focus on that.
And because there is a huge need for affordable housing in San Francisco, my research began to look into the impact of inclusive and affordable housing on the health of LGBTQ seniors. This supportive housing provides aging services and programming and is customized to the needs and interests of this community. The project has now also expanded, and we are hoping to explore efforts in Los Angeles, New York City, and Houston. With housing being a major social determinant of health, it’s critical to look at how living in an inclusive and welcoming environment impacts health of diverse seniors over time.
Why are you passionate about public health?
I love learning and teaching others about public health. I think it’s one of the most unique fields. It’s so interdisciplinary, tapping into things like sociology, medicine, nursing, and psychology. If you’re a person that loves many different disciplines and taking the different knowledge, research, and influences and embedding them into a larger umbrella, this field will excite you.
What is public health to you?
Public health means thinking about the health needs of larger groups of people and how we can impact their health behaviors, decisions, and actions in order to improve their health. This can include promoting vaccination, encouraging health behavior change, and addressing health inequities such as supporting follow-ups with the doctor, preventing and managing the spread of diseases, and ensuring access to medical care that’s available to people. Public health touches on all these elements and more, allowing us to make a broader impact as opposed to being contained to only the patient level. There’s a big need for advancing public health. People can work within a health system, academia, community and state programs, or even non-profits.
Why did you make the move to UNLV?
Diversity is important to me, so I was attracted by the diversity of the campus body at UNLV. It’s also amazing to see the growth of the university and the investment that Nevada is putting into public health. Additionally, there are amazing research opportunities for me in Las Vegas, which has a growing number of retirees and a diverse population aging in place, so I know I can help make an impact here.
What are your interests and passions outside of work?
I like to run and want to check out the unique hiking spots out here. I have three dogs — Brain, Bowie, and Tuna — that keep me very busy. I’m also a foodie. My mom is a chef so I grew up enjoying trying different cuisine. Pizza is at the top of my list for favorite foods. I live in Spring Valley, and there is a really awesome place near my house called Pizzeria Monzu. It’s run by a local Italian chef who doesn’t use commercial yeast, but has his own 100-year-old starter that he uses to make pizza dough. It’s so good! Also, they have jazz nights on Thursdays and Saturdays.
In my personal life, I’m passionate about being engaged in the LGBTQ community and taking part in services and activities. I’m already getting connected here in town — I recently joined an LGBTQ bowling league so I’ve been meeting more people that way.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
I have quite a bit and it changes all the time — but there are a few big ones. I completed a marathon. I’m proud that I got a PhD, especially given I’m a first-generation college graduate. I got married to my husband before it was federally legal across every state. I’m proud that I earned an NIH career award because it’s a competitive application process. But perhaps the biggest reward in my career has been to see the impact I have on my students and to watch them be successful. It’s exciting to see them earn their degrees and get their first jobs in something they’re really passionate about. I also love mentoring students and seeing them succeed in getting their first grant or publish a journal article. Overall, I can’t wait to experience this at UNLV.