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Arnold School of Public Health


Arnold School establishes the South Carolina Healthy Brain Research Network

April 10, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

With five-year funding ($475,000) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers from the University of South Carolina have launched the South Carolina Healthy Brain Research Network. A project of the Arnold School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Center, this network is one of five hosted by leading institutions across the United States. The networks are sponsored by CDC’s Healthy Aging Program in support of the Healthy Brain Initiative.

Alzheimer’s disease is ranked as the sixth leading cause of death even though recent estimates claim that deaths related to Alzheimer’s are underreported—suggesting that this disease may cause deaths at a rate more comparable to cardiovascular disease and cancer. Further, approximately 5.2 million adults are currently living with Alzheimer’s, and experts predict this number may reach 7.1 million by 2025 with a projected $1.2 trillion spent annually to care for these individuals.

As a result, the U.S. public health agenda now prioritizes the development of effective strategies to reduce the risk of and treat Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias which has led to national initiatives such as the S.C. Healthy Brain Research Network. Leading up to the funding of this new network, a team of researchers from the CDC-funded Healthy Aging Research Network engaged in a two-part study to better understand public perceptions about factors that positively impact (i.e., maintain or reduce risk) cognitive function. First, they conducted focus groups across the U.S. and submitted questions to national surveys to learn about individual opinions related to cognitive health and impairment. The second step involved a comprehensive literature review on the topic, examining 1000 abstracts and 34 studies in-depth.

The study, published in International Psychogeriatrics, concluded that members of the general public are able to identify risk factors for cognitive impairment, such as genetics and older age. “They were also aware that certain factors, such as physical or social activities and healthy diet, may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” says lead author Daniela Friedman, who is an associate professor at the Arnold School. These perceptions were consistent regardless of nationality, race/ethnicity or gender.

The research team believes that these perceptions will help researchers and educators identify and promote effective strategies and messaging to increase public awareness related to cognitive health and impairment through initiatives like the S.C. Healthy Brain Research Network. With those aims in mind, this newly created network will advance research in the areas of cognitive health and healthy aging through a strategic research agenda. The network will also support the training of doctoral candidates from the Arnold School of Public Health and the College of Social Work through a fellowship program that will provide these scholars with the opportunity to engage in state and national research.

Throughout these efforts, the network will leverage the team’s expertise in cognition perceptions and attitudes, evidence-based messaging/message development, research with ethnically diverse populations, and translation/dissemination strategies to advance the metanetwork’s (i.e., the five institution-based networks connected through the overarching Healthy Brain Research Network initiative) goal to “educate and empower” as outlined by The Healthy Brain Initiative: The Public Health Road Map for State and National Partnerships, 2013-2018. In doing so, they will partner with community-based, academic and government organizations (e.g., AARP, Alzheimer’s Association, Clemson University, Palmetto State Geriatric Education Center, SC DHEC, SC DHHS, SC Institute of Medicine and Public Health, USC Office for the Study of Aging).

The project is led by principal investigator Daniela Friedman (Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior) with Sara Wilcox (Department of Exercise Science) and Sue Levkoff (College of Social Work) serving as co-investigators. Rebecca Hunter (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) will consult on the grant.