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Combatting racial inequality in aging research

Dr. Richard Hodes
Richard J. HODES,
Director,
Office of the Director (OD)
.
Dr. Marie Bernard
Marie A. BERNARD,
Deputy Director,
Office of the Director (OD)
.

As we join our nation in grief during this turbulent and challenging time, we are outraged and heartbroken. As we together strive for justice and meaningful change, NIA continues our work to promote health equity, eliminate health disparities, and enhance the diversity of the scientific workforce. We will build on and continue these efforts, and others, for as long as is needed to reach these goals. To that end, we would like to share with you some of the actions that we are initiating and/or enhancing to address these pressing problems, and opportunities for you to partner with us in moving the science forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight the institutional barriers to equal health for all within our nation. We are happy to have had the opportunity to co-lead the recently released Rapid Diagnostic Accelerator for Underrepresented Populations (RADxUP) funding opportunity announcements, which are focused on NIH-designated health disparities and other COVID-19 vulnerable populations, with our partners at the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) and other NIH institutes, centers, and offices. We also co-led NIH efforts to strengthen data collection on COVID-19 to rapidly assess the needs and impact of COVID-19 across different population groups, particularly vulnerable populations. We encourage the scientific community to carefully look at and consider responding to these FOAs, as it is imperative that we move quickly in attacking this public health crisis.

Additionally, we have had research programs in place for many years that were specifically designed to enhance the diversity of the scientific research workforce and of the populations who are studied in the research that we support, allowing examination of the bases for health disparities and potential remedies to achieve health equity. The Resource Centers for Minority Aging Research (RCMAR) represent a long-standing program established to enhance the diversity of the aging research workforce by mentoring promising scientists from under-represented groups for sustained careers in aging research. RCMAR Centers have a long track record of supporting the study of aging in diverse communities, which is a core component of the RCMAR mission. We recently expanded the program to address Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and AD related dementias (ADRD), given rising cases of the diseases due to world-wide increases in the older adult population, the disproportionate burden in communities of color, and the need for a strong, diverse workforce to tackle this pressing challenge.

NIA’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers make outreach and education efforts in minority and underserved communities a high priority, working with local churches, community health centers, and other organizations for recruitment of a diverse research population. Our Alzheimer’s Clinical Trials Consortium is similarly dedicated, with a specific focus on increasing recruitment and support of minority scientists. And as part of our National Strategy for Recruitment and Participation in Alzheimer's and Related Dementias Clinical Research, we are piloting new means of making outreach to communities underrepresented in research to overcome barriers to AD/ADRD clinical trial participation.

Our commitment to the science of health disparities is fostered by our Office of Special Populations. That office, working in collaboration with the NIA Task Force on Minority Aging Research, a subcommittee of our National Advisory Council, led the development of the NIA Health Disparities Research Framework. Using the framework as a guide, NIA has made hundreds of awards since 2015 to explore the environmental, sociocultural, behavioral, and biological determinants of health disparities related to aging. We encourage those of you who are unfamiliar with the framework to reference it as a guide to eliminating health disparities and advancing health for all in future research.

Of course, none of these efforts would be robust without a thriving pipeline of diverse scientists addressing these and other aging research issues. To that end, in addition to our RCMAR investment, we invest in a number of programs to enhance the pipeline of training and career development. Some highlights of that investment include the Medicine, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (MSTEM) program, designed to enhance diversity in undergraduate science education, and the NIA diversity supplement program to foster a diversity of scientists at multiple levels of training. Through its Butler Williams Scholars program, commonly referred to as the Summer Institute on Aging Research and led by the Office of Special Populations, NIA will be offering its 34th annual overview of aging research with a focus on health disparities next month. We again encourage those scientists who may be unfamiliar with these programs to take advantage of the links provided in this blog, and to make outreach to the program staff contacts to learn about these and other opportunities offered by NIA.

We are deeply committed to continuing to develop relevant knowledge and broadening our understanding of the challenges of health disparities, and to fostering health equity throughout our research activities and awards. We hope that you will join us with rededicated and renewed vigor so that the evidence generated can serve as the foundation for future approaches to eliminate disparities in health and promote the well-being of older persons, ultimately advancing the health and maximizing the contributions of all in our rich and diverse nation.

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