Exercise to Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk in African Americans

Robert Newton, PhD
Pennington Biomedical Research Center (Baton Rouge, LA)

Co-Principal Investigators

Owen Carmichael, PhD
Pennington Biomedical Research Center (Baton Rouge, LA)
Year Awarded:
2017
Grant Duration:
July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020
Disease:
Alzheimer's
Award Amount:
$239,195
Grant Reference ID:
A2017547S
Award Type:
Standard
Award Region:
US Southern

I would learn that African Americans experience a host of health inequities across a range of chronic diseases and that physical activity was a risk factor for each condition.

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Exercise Intervention to Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk in African Americans

Summary

This study will determine if we can get elderly African American adults to exercise more. If we do, we believe that we can improve their cognition (ie, thinking) and hopefully prevent cognition loss as they get older. Many elderly people have problems in their thinking, also known as dementia, and we hope to reduce people’s risk of developing dementia.

Details

This project was designed by Dr. Robert Newton and Dr. Owen Carmichael. The goal of our project is to increase our knowledge on the effects of a physical activity program on dementia prevention in African American adults. In order to achieve this goal, we need to develop a physical activity program that African American adults will participate in. There have been several physical activity interventions that have been specifically developed for African American adults, but they were not specific to older African Americans. Our first aim is to gather information directly from older African Americans about the kinds of activities they want to engage in and use this information to develop the physical activity program. Our next aim is to determine if this intervention will increase physical activity levels in a group of older African Americans. Each participant will wear a physical activity monitoring device over the course of the study.  We need to determine if the intervention increases physical activity in order to achieve our final aim. Our final aim is to determine if the intervention has an effect on brain functioning. Brain functioning will be measured using psychological testing and imaging techniques. Our intervention is unique from other studies in two major ways.  First, no study to date has specifically developed a physical activity intervention for older African Americans. Second, no study has measured brain functioning utilizing imaging techniques. Therefore, our project will make several important contributions to the dementia field.  

As a first step in determining the effects of physical activity on brain functioning in older African American adults, this study will lead the way to other studies assessing different types of physical activity interventions, as well as different types of imaging techniques in this population.While there is an association between physical activity and risk for dementia, these studies have not included large samples of African Americans and there is data indicating that the risk for dementia is greater in African Americans. However, there is very little known about effective interventions to prevent dementia and cognitive decline in African Americans and our study will make a significant contribution to the field.

About the Researcher

I obtained my doctorate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Florida in 2002. Following my internship, I accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA and have been here ever since. I am currently an associate professor and director of the Physical Activity and Ethnic Minority Health Laboratory at the Pennington Center. My primary area of specialization is to examine the role that physical activity and exercise training interventions affect the health of African American adults and children. A growing secondary area is in examining the role that technology has in the promotion of health behaviors, particularly by encouraging use of mobile technologies. A large majority of my research is conducted in collaboration with community partners. My research has been supported by federal, state, industry, and private foundation funding. These efforts have resulted in over 60 peer-reviewed publications in the areas of physical activity promotion and exercise training interventions, school-based weight gain prevention programs, body fat/adiposity and cardiometabolic risk factors, and technology-based health promotion programs in African American adults and children. I have also received several honors and awards from the University of Florida, Society of Behavioral Medicine, and the National Institutes of Health.

Personal Story

I have always been physically active.  The main sport I played growing up was soccer.  When I entered high school I played football and ran track. Beginning in college and continuing today, tennis has been my main source of physical activity and I continue to run and engage in resistance training several days per week.  I started playing sports because it was fun and I continue to be physically active because it’s enjoyable and it is good for my physical and mental health. So engaging in research to find ways to help people initiate and maintain physical activity is a natural fit for me.

Following my junior year in college I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a summer research opportunity.  I spent a summer at Duke University under the tutelage of a prominent diabetes researcher.  He informed me of the disproportionate number of African American women who were obese.  My immediate beliefs were that behavioral factors, including dietary intake and physical activity, as well as social norms, were largely contributing to this problem.  I would later learn that African Americans experience a host of health inequities across a range of chronic diseases, and that physical activity was a risk factor to each condition.   This 1992 summer research opportunity was my first glimpse into health disparities within my community, was the impetus for me becoming a health behavior researcher. 

My entry into the field of dementia research began several years ago. Dr. Owen Carmichael, the co-PI on the Bright Focus grant, approached me one day and began discussing the lack of dementia research in African Americans.  This conversation piqued my interest and also alerted me to the fact that African Americans experience health disparities in dementia. This knowledge coincided with learning that my mother was experiencing cognitive decline. Although I tried to deny it, the realization became crystal clear when I witnessed it firsthand during a birthday visit.This situation has led to several doctor's visits, cognitive testing, and worry. As you can imagine, I have found new inspiration for my work: to find a physical activity routine or routines, that will help stave off impending dementia for my mother.

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