USC Doctors Return to East LA to Combat Mental Health Issues

Providing the community with tools to better manage Alzheimer's disease and depression

By LatinoLA Contributor
Published on LatinoLA: June 14, 2017

USC Doctors Return to East LA to Combat Mental Health Issues

For University of Southern California colleagues Drs. William Vega and Maria Aranda, their stories began at the same place, White Memorial Hospital in east Los Angeles where they both entered the world. After overcoming personal obstacles to success along their own journeys, they each eventually returned to the "old neighborhood" and are working tirelessly on behalf of the aging, underserved Latino community to address the effects of Alzheimer's Disease and depression with proper management tools.

Considering that Latinos are more likely to suffer from these conditions, the neighborhood has never been the same since.

Meet the Doctors

During his early childhood in Lincoln Heights, Dr. William Vega witnessed the devastating effects of chronic illness. His mother was often in-and-out of the hospital because she contracted tuberculosis in the 1950s when there wasn't a cure for the disease. Vega's father, a farm worker and gardener, could not take care of a young child during the day, so Vega was shuffled among different family members in some of the most impoverished areas of Los Angeles, an experience he credits for his lifelong interest in health in minority communities.

Of Mexican decent, Dr. Vega grew up in extreme poverty which served to produce enormous ambition. He was determined not to be vulnerable to the same life as an adult. As a result, he set his sights on obtaining a college degree and applied to the University of Oregon. When he didn't hear back from the admissions office, he packed up an old 1956 Pontiac and drove out to the university to inquire about his application. He enrolled shortly thereafter, eventually transferring to UC Berkeley to earn a bachelor of arts degree in sociology.

Dr. Vega is currently a provost professor at USC with appointments in social work, preventive medicine, psychiatry, family medicine, psychology and gerontology. He is the Cleofas and Victor Ramirez Professor of Practice, Policy, Research and Advocacy for the Latino Population at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Vega is also the executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging.

An elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, Vega has conducted community and clinical research projects on health, mental health and substance abuse throughout the United States and Latin America. He was one of the first researchers to document health and mental health disparities in American society. Recently, Vega co-authored the first-ever report on the incidence and cost of Alzheimer's on U.S. Latinos.

The full report can be viewed at Additional information can also be found at here.

According to the report, "Latinos & Alzheimer's Disease: New Numbers Behind the Crisis," U.S. Latinos living with Alzheimer's disease are projected to increase from 379,000 in 2012 to 1.1 million by 2030 and to 3.5 million by 2060 – a growth of 832 percent. In addition, the report released unprecedented findings on the cumulative direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer's disease on the U.S. Latino community, including millions of family caregivers, which would ultimately cost the U.S. economy $373 billion by 2030 and $2.35 trillion (in 2012 dollars) by 2060. The study also cites that U.S. Latinos are 50 percent more likely to get Alzheimer's than non-Latino whites, therefore, making the need to provide patients with management tools all the more necessary.

Growing up not far from Dodger Stadium, Dr. Maria Aranda had a close relationship with her maternal grandmother, who lived with her for the first five years of her life. Her parents, who both immigrated from Puerto Rico, reinforced the value of respecting elders, seeking them out and hearing their stories. They also served as her steadfast supporters as she navigated student life, and her role as a single-mother.

Dr. Aranda always knew she was going to college despite any obstacles in her way. As a first generation college student, her parents provided the necessary emotional support while modeling a strong work ethic. They knew that an education meant a better life.

Dr. Aranda is currently an associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and holds a joint appointment with the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She is a psychotherapist with 30 years of experience providing mental health services to middle-aged older adults and their families.

Aranda received both her MSW and PhD from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She attributes her interest in social work to her parents, who lent a helping hand to those in need despite their own lack of means. Her Latina heritage and close relationship to her grandparents contributed to her focus on minority and aging groups.

She is well-known among community leaders for establishing model support programs such as the El Portal Latino Alzheimer's Project, Programa Esperanza, and Siempre Viva for individuals and families in East Los Angeles affected by depression and Alzheimer disease.

Among her many important contributions to the field include studying the effectiveness of Programa Esperanza (Project Hope). The study is currently following 250 low-income, primarily Spanish-speaking older Latinos, who are patients of the AltaMed Health Services' Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE). The majority of these patients are residents of east Los Angeles and surrounding communities.

The program offers patients suffering from late-life depression and other conditions with medical, social, nutritional and rehabilitative services to better manage their symptoms. Dr. Vega a co-investigator of the project.

The three-year project is supported by a $1.5 million award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Award (AD-1403-13904). AltaMed Health Services, Corporation is the study's community research partner.

Additional information on the study can be found at and [url=]]

Expanding Biotech in East Los Angeles

In addition to providing a valuable service to the community, the doctors are also part of the expanding biotech presence in east Los Angeles. According a recent report released by Biocom, the biotech industry is thriving. Research and lab services professionals like Drs. Vega and Aranda represent 75,490 persons employed by the industry in 2016 in Southern California.

The complete report can be found at

As a respected global leader, University of Southern California is primed to help usher in a new era where medicine and the biological sciences will create progress in the areas of research and healthcare while stimulating economic development to create thousands of jobs in Los Angeles County. A new era that will create an thousands of jobs, for local workers in addition to medical and research professionals with the creation of a biotech corridor in east Los Angeles and a biotech park at USC's Health Science Campus.

Many of Los Angeles' future biotech luminaries are leaving the county in search of better employment opportunities after graduation, therefore, creating a "brain drain" in our community. USC, along with the support of key City and County stakeholders, is leading the charge to build a stronger biotech infrastructure to do something about it. The goal is to create a thriving environment where biotechnology innovations are supported through academic institutions, training centers, companies and communities that maximize the expertise and resources already in place.

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