Established in 2006, the Rutgers University-Newark African-American Brain Health Initiative (AABHI) is a cross-unit program jointly run by the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (Gluck) and the Office of University-Community Partnerships (Assistant Chancellor, Diane Hill). The AABHI is a unique university-community partnership promoting brain health among African-American seniors in the greater Newark, New Jersey, area. Combining research, education, and community engagement, we seek to understand why African Americans are at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and other age-related brain health problems, and what we can do to help improve people’s memory and brain health.
Our focus on this community is predicated on the high rates of dementia, memory loss, and mood-disorders in African Americans. African Americans are twice as likely as others to develop Alzheimer’s disease while clinical depression is notably more frequent among African Americans than in the general population, especially among women who are twice as likely as men to suffer from mood disorders. This brain health crisis in the African-American community is believed to result primarily from life-style and behavioral factors including obesity, poor cardiovascular health, insufficient aerobic exercise, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of education.
To date we have served over 4000 residents of Greater Newark.
Local partners work with us through their participation in a Community Advisory Board to improve African American brain health. These include representatives from both community and faith-based organizations including churches (The New Hope Baptist Church, Christ Episcopal Church, St. James Missionary Society, St. Mathews AME), senior centers (Bethany Senior Center, Irvington Senior Citizen Community Center, East Orange Office of Senior Services), and local government offices for community health and aging (City of Newark–Health and Community Wellness, Essex County Division of Senior Services) as well as other community-based non-profit organizations that provide direct services to African-American seniors of Greater Newark (Babyland Family Services, Inc., New Community Corporation, Tri-City People, Vision of Hope-Community Development). In addition, the AABHI has established additional community-based programming partnerships with the Newark Museum, the New Jersey Alzheimer’s Association, and the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association of NJ. Support for the AABHI’s previous programs have come from Pfizer, Novartis, Forrest Laboratories and Rutgers University.
In line with established Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) approaches, our design, implementation, analysis, and interpretation of results from AABHI’s education and intervention programs have been informed both by feedback from individual participants as well as through planning and post-event discussions with members of the Community Advisory Board. The AABHI’s church and senior-center partners have been especially involved in developing culturally-accepted interventions.
Recently, the AABHI has begun to build on this deep reservoir of community trust and long-history of input from the community to build a rigorous research program on African-American Brain Health. Our goal is to work with community partners to develop, refine, and validate interventions to improve brain health among older African Americans in Greater Newark, with the potential to scale our programs to be portable to other locations, leading to broader impact on African-American communities around the country. In 2015, the AABHI was awarded internal grants of $210,000 (Chancellor’s Seed Grant plus Provost’s IMRT) to expand AABHI programs, with the long-term goal of building a national center of excellence for community-based participatory research on minority brain health that integrates research, education, and community engagement.
In August of 2015 we were awarded a five-year $1-million grant from the New Jersey Department of Health – obtained through a competition among states for funding from the federal Department of Health and Human Services – to teach people how to protect their brains through exercise. We hope to demonstrate that this improves memory and cognitive vitality, reducing people’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Other AABHI programs and activities are summarized below:
- Annual African-Americans and Brain Health Event: A half-day educational event at Rutgers for seniors, providing information on brain health, aging, and avoiding Alzheimer’s disease.
- “Brain and Heart-Healthy Soul Food Cooking”: A cooking class and nutrition lecture on how to make soul food recipes healthier, but just as tasty.
- Brain health awareness events at partner churches, senior centers, and local public housing.
- Dance-based exercise classes for seniors at partner locations and open to the public at no charge.
Brain Health Ambassadors: Retired or semi-retired nurses assist in community education programs and community-based research on aging and brain health. The Ambassadors program is a university-community collaboration between Rutgers and the Black Nurses Association of Northern NJ, and is an outgrowth of the Rutgers College of Nursing’s Minority Nurse Leadership Program. Through these partnerships, Brain Health Ambassadors are trained to communicate information on brain health and brain disorders to others in their community, explain the importance of biomedical research participation for African Americans, and assist in recruitment and administration of our CBPR studies on brain health. By involving local nurses in our AABHI efforts, we can address research stigma in the community, while also providing continuing education on brain health to these skilled professionals.
Brain Health Scholars: Undergraduates, native to Newark, participate in community-based research on brain science and other local community-engagement and education programs. Mentored by AABHI faculty and graduate students to work with the Brain Health Ambassadors on community education and research programs in their own neighborhoods (including their own churches), they receive academic credit and financial support through undergraduate research programs (including MBRS and NSF LSAMP).
Brain Health Pioneers: Newark high school students learn about brain science and brain health by attending a summer Brain Camp at Rutgers-Newark. The Brain Health Pioneers program supports a pathway to future involvement in the STEM fields and inspires and mentors them to pursue college training in science and biomedical research.
By utilizing this intergenerational approach to community outreach and research, we promote sustainable changes in brain health within the African-American communities of Newark, seeking improvements in brain health knowledge, attitudes, and practices within these communities.
- Who is most at risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease? What regular habits and lifestyles are best for reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s? We are studying African Americans, 65 and older, to participate in a study of aging, memory, and other assessments of health and lifestyle.
- Can participation in a dance-based exercise class improve memory and brain function in older African Americans? Will regular exercise reduce the risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease? In partnership with the New Jersey Department of Health’s Office of Minority and Multicultural Health, we offer exercise classes at local churches, senior centers, and public housing. By assessing people’s memory, mood, and health, we can evaluate the ability of exercise to improve memory functions that often decline with aging.
Further details on these two research programs are presented in the section on research.