A Better Understanding: The National Institutes of Health Funds Research at Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities to Examine Inequities Associated with Cancer and Heart Disease

Article excerpt

Medical and science researchers continue to try to get at the root cause of racial and ethnic health disparities. Why are advanced breast cancer rates so much higher among certain populations, particularly African-American women? Why are colon cancer rates significantly higher among Native Americans?

Years of research have yielded many theories but no firm answers to several of these kinds of questions. Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health awarded grants to 10 Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities. The NIH says the grants are designed "to better understand and address inequities associated with the two leading causes of death in the United States--cancer and heart disease."

"We need to encourage the entire scientific community, from basic to applied scientists, to significantly advance our understanding of health disparities--a remarkably complex and critically important problem for our society," NIH Director Francis S. Collins said in a statement.

Each center will receive approximately $10 million over five years. Here are some of their stories:

Northeastern University

As a researcher who works with vulnerable populations, Dr. Katherine Tucker, Northeastern University's chair of health sciences, says she was concerned about the lack of health data on Massachusetts' growing Puerto Rican population. NIH funding has allowed her team of researchers to fill that information void with a longitudinal study that began with her team establishing baseline health information on a large sample of Puerto Ricans in the Boston area.

"We recruited 1,500 Puerto Rican adults and started following them," Tucker says of the initial five-year study. "We found extremely high rates of diabetes. We found extremely high rates of symptoms of depression. More than 70 percent had hypertension. We looked at their diets and blood level of nutrients. We found that many were quite low on vitamin B6."

Researchers conducted in-depth home interviews and brought study participants in to do composition scans, a procedure that examines fat mass in different regions of the body and bone density.

The data collected will help researchers understand the links between body composition and the diseases that disproportionately affect Puerto Ricans in Boston.

During the next five-year phase, Tucker says, researchers will examine how much the health status of these subjects has changed over time. She says the grant also includes a sociological component.

"This looks at what are some other factors contributing to their health: social isolation, language isolation, discrimination, stress," she says. "We're looking to see if these factors are contributors."

University of Washington

Native Americans are two to seven times more likely to die in an accidental drowning and fire as Whites, says Dr. Dedra Buchwald, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington and principal investigator of the new population disparities study at the university's Center for Native Population Health Statistics. …