Kevin Heffernan has always been excited about exercise. In high school and college he was active in many sports, and his sports training led to a love of weight lifting. His earliest research focused on weight training and the health of the heart. Now an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science in the School of Education, Heffernan is looking at the relationship between cardiovascular and cognitive health across the lifespan.
“I want to show that exercise is the best medicine for all of this … for the heart, for the brain,” says Heffernan, who was recently honored with the Young Investigator Award by the North American Artery Society.
“The idea is maybe the arteries age before the brain. So, if we can fix the arteries, maybe we can fix the brain,” Heffernan explains.
Heffernan is the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at SU, where current research studies focus on consequences of lifestyle choices on artery function, which can have implications for cardiovascular disease. Heffernan and his team of students are studying the cardiovascular response to stress and cognitive engagement in both young children and adults. Their goal is to identify factors, such as physical inactivity or poor diet, which may predict certain cardiovascular events.
Nicole Spartano, a postdoctoral associate in the Human Performance Laboratory, says that undergraduate and graduate students play an active role in the research projects under way.
“Dr. Heffernan has high expectations, and students put in long hours to collecting data,” she says. “In the end, they have great experiences and will have multiple publications by the time they graduate.”
Heffernan has been successful in securing external funding to ramp up his research efforts. The National Dairy Council and the Dairy Research Institute recently awarded him a grant to explore the effects of whey protein on artery health and cognitive functions in older adults.
“Whey protein and whey protein shakes have been used by body builders for years to build muscle, but there are lots of other things in the proteins to lower blood pressure and do good things for the arteries,” Heffernan says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Scranton and a master’s at Columbia University, Heffernan began his Ph.D. at SU. His advisor moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so Heffernan followed him and finished his degree at Illinois. He then worked in a post-doctoral fellowship at Tufts Medical Center before returning to Syracuse as a faculty member.
“It’s nice to come full circle, because this is where I started. I’ve always felt at home here. It’s nice to be back,” he says.