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Dealing with dementia

New center to focus on Alzheimer’s disease and minority research

Social work and public health researchers Sue Levkoff and Daniela Friedman are teaming up to open a new front line in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, particularly among the African American population, which has a greater incidence of the disease and related dementias.

Their goal is to create a pipeline of researchers, predominantly African American, to find new approaches to addressing the socio-economic and cultural influences that might contribute to this health disparity. Levkoff and Friedman have been awarded a $4 million research training grant from the National Institute on Aging to establish the Carolina Center on Alzheimer’s Disease and Minority Research.

The center will work with the state’s other research institutions — Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina — as well as several historically black colleges and universities around the state, including Allen University in Columbia and Claflin and South Carolina State universities in Orangeburg, to identify and train a cohort of researchers.

The collaboration was key for Levkoff, a native of South Carolina, who established a National Institute on Aging-funded center at Harvard University that focused on dementia caregiving interventions.

“Alzheimer’s research has been a passion of mine for a very long time,” says Levkoff, who holds an endowed chair in the College of Social Work. “The fact that the work will be done in South Carolina is particularly relevant because we have such great needs.”

The university also has great resources, especially in the Arnold School of Public Health’s Office for the Study of Aging, which Friedman co-directs and which has the oldest and most comprehensive Alzheimer’s disease registry in the country. South Carolina has about 93,000 people currently living with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Collectively, we have expertise in cognitive aging, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, minority health, population health, faculty mentoring and career development,” Friedman says. “We were extremely well-poised to establish this center at the University of South Carolina.”

Faculty members from the center will work with three new researchers each year and mentor them in Alzheimer’s research. The center also will provide training and seminars focused on minority health and aging research to a broader group of faculty members whom they hope to inspire to apply for funding through the center. 

Each scientist will receive up to $30,000 for a project. After five years, there will be 15 well-trained researchers in the field.

“This funding provides an opportunity for us to engage HBCU faculty in research on aging and Alzheimer’s disease so they can excite their students in this field, hopefully building an important pipeline,” Levkoff says.

The center has its first cohort of three researchers who have received funding to conduct population-based research on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias — one each from South Carolina, Clemson and S.C. State. The first projects will make use of existing data to look at the impact of location, other health issues and religion on cognitive functioning in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Miriam Evans, assistant professor of health education at S.C. State, is using data from the S.C. Alzheimer’s Disease Registry and Medicaid claims to look at mortality in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia patients who also have chronic health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. 

“We are just getting started,” Evans says. “This is a learning process for me as well — especially learning more about the different dementia types.”

This funding provides an opportunity for us to engage HBCU faculty in research on aging and Alzheimer’s disease so they can excite their students in this field, hopefully building an important pipeline.

Sue Levkoff, College of Social Work

Nicole Davis, nursing professor and nurse practitioner at Clemson, is working with the Alzheimer’s Registry, the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office and the Clemson Center for Geospatial Technologies to map Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia prevalence across the state to determine relationships between factors such as race and ethnicity, geographic location and health care utilization. 

“As a geriatric nurse practitioner for the past 16 years, I have worked closely with these patients and their families and have witnessed firsthand the impacts of the disease as well as the benefits and challenges of delivering quality health care,” Davis says. “These experiences drive me as a researcher to find ways to address these challenges by developing supportive systems to improve health outcomes.”

Davis says African Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias tend to fare worse than their white counterparts.

“Minority populations are more likely to be diagnosed at later stages of the disease — missing the benefits of early treatment — and are less likely to seek help from a health care provider and have poorer outcomes once diagnosed,” she says.

One bright spot for African Americans in this arena has been seen in the research of Andrea K. Henderson, an assistant professor in sociology. 

Henderson is using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study of aging adults in America sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration, to look at the impact of religion and faith on cognitive functioning. 

Her study is wrapping up and she is planning a presentation on her findings that faith tends to be more of a help for black women in protecting their cognitive functioning. Religion and faith are least effective at helping white men avoid cognitive decline.

“It’s this private, personal dimension of religion — religiosity — that’s most protective for black women, not the social aspects of regular attendance,” Henderson says. “I wish I had a really profound reason for why. Our findings bring up a lot of questions that are unanswerable in the data we have, but we are hoping that it encourages other lines of research.” 

It is that diversity of study ideas that is a primary goal of the Carolina Center on Alzheimer’s Disease and Minority Research.

“I think the center is a great way to establish a new research agenda that has implications for our state and our nation,” Henderson says.

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