Stimulus Boosts Research on Minority Elders

New America Media, News Report, Paul Kleyman Posted: Oct 28, 2009

A decade ago, Dr. Carmen Green got to work as a junior researcher on improving management of pain medicine for older African Americans. Now federal stimulus funds are helping her and other senior researchers "pay forward" the opportunity they had by mentoring a new generation of health scientists.

“The biggest gift for me is seeing new scholars I’ve mentored move forward,” Green said, in their efforts to close the health disparities gap between white elders and seniors of color in the United States.

Green is part of a community-health pipeline at six major universities across the United States that just received a boost from stimulus grants. The National Institutes on Aging (NIA) created the program in 1997 to fill the void in health research needed to bring better care to ethnic elders – and the supply of scientists to do it.

The program -- called the Resource Centers for Minority Elders Research (RCMAR) -- recently received a $179,000 federal stimulus grant that will help revive a national effort placed on hold because of stagnant federal funding in recent years.

It is one of a wide array of modest-size economic recovery grants within the $10 billion stimulus allocation to the National Institutes of Health (one of which is NIA). The nation’s health laboratory has seen funding stagnation in recent years all but stem the flow of many “scientifically meritorious projects,” according to RCMAR’s national co-director, Steven A. Wallace of the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Stimulus money will help fund more research projects that can potentially improve the health of older ethnic populations, while at the same time creating more jobs in health research,” said Wallace, who also co-directs UCLA’s Center for Health Improvement for Minority Elders, one of the six RCMARs.

He added, “This a people-ready project--it’s a short-term investment with a long-term payoff.”

Wallace explained that NIA launched the RCMARs a dozen years ago when the agency became concerned that too few scientists were devoting their careers to public health problems facing ethnic elders. Moving new researchers into aging has been critical, he said, because the United States is facing the rapid aging of the huge and diverse boomer generation, 78 million strong.

Concern about meeting the unique needs of multicultural seniors grew as NIA scientists realized that the populations of ethnic elders will grow by more than 180 percent in the next two decades, more than double the rate of whites 65-plus.

Wallace emphasized that RCMAR studies are not ivory-tower projects but community health efforts developed with local senior centers, nursing homes, churches and other organizations.

Not only do researchers discern better ways, say, to enable aging African Americans to exercise regularly or older Native Americans to eat healthier meals, RCMAR health scientists have brought their research findings to communities in layman’s terms through live presentations, Web sites, radio and television. One RCMAR project in New York City even produced its own cable TV program.

Wallace said the stimulus grant will fund the kind of national collaboration that the RCMARs have had to curtail due to tightening budgets.

The program is now reviewing project proposals and will select one or two in such areas as improving nutrition or exercise. RCMAR plans to develop and test the projects at all of its regional centers in California, Michigan, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Alabama. The results would be adaptable in any community.

RCMAR projects don’t merely preach to seniors, such as about getting more exercise, but they define ways for communities to make physical activity more accessible, Wallace explained.

One example of a current RCMAR project involves a UCLA researcher who found that African-American elders in high-crime areas tend to stay indoors -- and remain sedentary. When black seniors said they needed a safe place to meet friends and become more active, the researcher used his findings to design and test a successful church-based exercise program that could be replicated in other churches.

Another RCMAR health scientist is studying how best to adapt existing treatments for depression among seniors to Spanish-speaking elders not proficient in English.

Still another researcher is translating and adapting widely used health tests that might help doctors reach out to older Vietnamese immigrants quietly suffering from trauma they incurred while in communist labor sites and refugee camps. Such applied research might help health professionals to better assist older refugees from different strife-torn nations.

Wallace emphasized that, like other RCMAR research efforts, pilot projects under the stimulus grant will be on a small scale, often the first scientific investigation in aging for junior researchers. Findings of the stimulus project must be completed within 18 months. Research showing that a project can be successfully replicated on a larger scale may get additional funds for, perhaps, two more years, before the programs roll out their results in different communities, Wallace said.

According to a 2008 NIA evaluation, RCMAR trained nearly 200 new researchers in aging in its first decade, and 95 percent of the new gerontologists were from ethnic groups, such as the University of Michigan’s Carmen Green.

Recently, the former RCMAR junior researcher turned senior-level mentor has taken another step forward in her career development through the university’s new public policy center on health disparities. “I’ve changed roles from just being a lecturer to calling more policy attention to minority aging,” Green said. “We need to show how science can better inform public policy and the people who make those decisions.”


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