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$7 million in grant funding helps support research on health of Georgia youth

Gene Brody is director of the UGA Center for Family Research.

Athens, Ga. – A team of scientists in the University of Georgia’s Center for Family Research has received two grants from the National Institutes of Health providing more than $7 million to lay the foundation for prevention programs designed to improve the health and well-being of young rural African Americans in Georgia.

Young African Americans in the rural South are more likely to experience greater burdens of disease and poorer health outcomes compared to other populations in the U.S., and researchers hope that careful analysis of the unique problems these youth face will lead to new family and community-based solutions.

“The grants support two very different projects, but they have a common goal,” said Gene Brody, founder and co-director of the UGA Center for Family Research. “The science that will come out of both projects will be important in terms of understanding health disparities and developing new strategies to improve the quality of life for African Americans.”

One grant supports ongoing work in the Strong African American Families Healthy Adult Project, or SHAPE, which has followed 493 African American youths since they were 11 years old. The SHAPE project will continue to work with the young people and their families as they enter early adulthood.

The extraordinary scope of the SHAPE project is rooted in the idea that many of the most dangerous chronic diseases are caused in part by stress. Higher stress levels create inflammation in the body, which is linked to the development of coronary heart disease, hypertension, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

“At the end of this project in 2019, the youths in these families will be 30 years old,” Brody said. “You could say that we’ve grown up together.”

Researchers regularly analyze blood and urine samples from SHAPE participants to determine levels of inflammation-related stress. What they’ve found is that high levels of inflammation can be reduced when youths develop strong relationships with family and community members.

“We find time and time again that strong emotional support in the immediate family, extended family and the community can prevent stress from creating these biological changes that give rise to chronic diseases,” Brody said. “Social relationships are pretty darned powerful when it comes to health.”

Over the next five years, the SHAPE project will continue to work with participants as they face new stresses caused by entering the job market and striking out on their own.

The second grant provides renewed funding for The Center for Translational Prevention Science, or CTAPS. Much like the SHAPE program, CTAPS researchers work to better understand the negative effects of stress on the lives of African American youth, but with a particular focus on risks of drug use and HIV infection.

“Chronic stress not only affects inflammatory pathways, it also affects important neurocognitive systems that may influence the development of drug abuse problems or risky sexual behaviors,” Brody said.

The CTAPS program will sponsor new research on the relationships between stress and behavior to develop preventive interventions for youth in general and rural African Americans in particular.

These long-running projects involve partners and participants across the nation, who have given their time and energy to improving the lives of others, Brody said.

“The success of these programs is a testament to the superb relationships that my colleagues at the Center for Family Research have formed with families and the families’ trust in what we do,” he said. “We have fabulous professionals on our team who make this research possible.”

The research reported in this article is supported by two grants from the National Institutes of Health under grant numbers 2P30DA027827-06 and 2R01HD030588-20A1.