NIEHS postdoctoral fellow Dana Alhasan, Ph.D., has been named a recipient of the 2021 William G. Coleman Jr., Ph.D., Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Innovation Award. The competitive award program, run by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, provides one year of support for studies that have the potential for high impact in minority health and health disparities research.
Alhasan’s research is focused on understanding how various aspects of neighborhoods can affect our risk of developing dementia. She works in the lab of Chandra Jackson, Ph.D., who leads the NIEHS Social and Environmental Determinants of Health Equity Group.
“By identifying neighborhood features that contribute to dementia, we can inform environmental and social policies to prevent or delay the onset of the disease,” said Alhasan.
Studies have shown that delaying Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, by even just five years can reduce the economic impact of the disease by 40 percent. Dementia is one of the costliest conditions to society, with a total direct medical cost of $259 billion.
Though the exact causes of dementia remain unknown, a combination of genetic and environmental factors likely play a role. For example, Alhasan pointed out that factors including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, low education, physical inactivity, and social disengagement have all been linked to dementia.
“But what is behind those factors? A lot of them are influenced by our neighborhood environment, whether it’s our access to food, health care, recreational resources, or school activities,” said Alhasan.
The Coleman Research Award will enable Alhasan to investigate the connections between such neighborhood features and dementia risk. To identify dementia cases, she plans to tap into the South Carolina Alzheimer’s Disease Registry, the oldest and most comprehensive registry of its kind. The statewide registry contains information on diagnosed dementia patients’ age, sex, race, type of dementia, and address or zip code.
Alhasan will use each case’s location to assign them to a specific census tract, an area roughly equivalent to a neighborhood established by the Census Bureau for analyzing populations. She will then look for associations between various physical and social features — such as food outlets, recreation facilities, air pollution, and racial and economic residential segregation — and the number of dementia cases in each census tract.
“Dana’s novel project is well positioned to identify modifiable features of the physical and social environments that are associated with dementia risk, which can help inform effective place-based interventions to address overall and disparities in risk,” said Jackson.
Alhasan, who is Palestinian, grew up with a keen sense of place. She was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, within the gated walls of an American compound built by the oil company Aramco for its employees to live in. The compound was modeled after a stereotypical American neighborhood, with running trails, a golf course, a movie theater, and a hospital, where her dad worked as a physician and her mom as a nurse.
“I was surrounded by all these great things but when I left the compound there was nothing, just a little bit of desert and a lot of city,” she said. “The differences were stark and made me think about the neighborhood environment and how that can influence health.”
Citation: Zissimopoulos J, Crimmins E, St Clair P. 2014. The value of delaying Alzheimer’s disease onset. Forum Health Econ Policy 18(1):25−39.
(Marla Broadfoot, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)