A major effort is underway to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia for older African Americans.
Neuroscientist Mark Gluck of Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) is leading a team that will use 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. They hope to demonstrate that this improves memory and cognitive vitality, reducing people’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease.“African Americans have twice the rate of Alzheimer’s disease as compared to the broader population,” says Gluck, a professor at RU-N's Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience and co-director of Rutgers’ African-American Brain Health Initiative. “There is a growing appreciation among scientists and doctors that the causes of Alzheimer's are complex – including not only genetic risk factors but also lifestyle, behavioral habits, and environment.”
Gluck says that the task of reducing the rate of Alzheimer's disease is so complex that this three-way partnership among RU-N, the state and federal governments, and local churches, is essential to the progress he hopes to make in trying to improve brain health and reduce the rate of Alzheimer’s disease in this particularly vulnerable local community.
RU-N's participation in supporting this program of community-based scholarship and research is part of its strategic plan for being an “anchor institution” that serves the needs of the people of Newark.
With the help of community and church organizations in Greater Newark, Gluck and his team will enlist several hundred African American participants 55 and older for initial physical and mental health assessments followed by a 20-week program of dance-based exercise and lifestyle education. He hopes to show that exercise will produce significant improvements in reasoning, learning and memory, all of which could then strengthen participants' brains against the stresses that cause Alzheimer's.
According to Diane Hill, RU-N's assistant chancellor for university-community partnerships and the other co-director of the African-American Brain Health Initiative, convincing people to participate in a large research effort is an achievement in itself. “Minority communities have long regarded participating in research as a no-no,” says Hill, a Newark native, citing African Americans' bitter memories of experiments such as the notorious Tuskegee, Alabama, syphilis research that began in the 1930s.
However, over the past ten years, Gluck, Hill and their African-American Brain Health Initiative team at RU-N laid extensive groundwork for this project through brain health education programs at local churches and community centers.